I recently read One Summer: America 1927 by Bill Bryson. Bryson’s earlier book, A Short History of Nearly Everything is one of my favourite non-fiction books. I really like his style of narrative non-fiction, and I think he manages to write books which are both interesting and entertaining. When I read non-fiction these days I’m not looking for a serious academic text, so this sort of thing is exactly what I want. I picked up this book because I was in the mood to read some non-fiction and I thought that Bryson would be a safe bet, even if the topic was not something I was familiar with. This is a history book, covering various events in American history all around the summer of 1927. The book starts with a focus on Charles Lindbergh and his solo flight across the Atlantic, and brings in other figures from the period such as baseball star Babe Ruth, President Calvin Coolidge, and topics such as Prohibition and the stock market. As I said, it wasn’t really anything that I was familiar with, but it was fascinating reading. It definitely fulfilled my requirement of being both entertaining and interesting, and my only complaint is that it trailed off a bit towards the end, with no real conclusion. But overall I really enjoyed reading it.
A short round up of a few other books that I’ve recently finished.
I read The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan because I was looking for something along the lines of Harry Potter. It didn’t quite tick the boxes I was looking for, but I did enjoy it. I do really like all the Greek mythology.
The Falconer by Elizabeth May was something I read with my book group. It’s about a teenager girl in 19th century Edinburgh who hunts faeries. It could have been good, but I feel that it just wasn’t a very well developed world (even though steampunk Edinburgh is nonetheless a cool setting). I didn’t like the main character either. Plus it had a very abrupt cliffhanger ending. Overall it was not well done despite the potential it had, so I was disappointed.
I Wear The Black Hat by Chuck Klosterman is a non-fiction book about villains, and what makes a villain, and why popular culture is seemingly obsessed with villainous characters. It was interesting enough, and a good topic, but not as good as Klosterman’s other non-fiction essay collections which I have read.
Not a great bunch of books, but I am reading a couple of good ones at the moment, so hopefully I can write some longer reviews soon.
I have enjoyed all of Malcolm Gladwell’s books in the past, so I was looking forward to reading his new one, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants. In this one, Gladwell address the topic of power. He talks about how what initially seems best may not be, like tough laws on crime, or small class sizes. He also considers how people can turn their disadvantages into the keys to their success, such as 12 year old girls playing unconventional basketball tactics or dyslexics becoming great listeners to avoid reading. Like Gladwell’s other books, this one relies rather heavily on the anecdotal and does not have a particularly rigorous approach to the underlying data. This book in particular is mainly case studies, and I think in some cases it is a bit flawed in terms of correlation/causation or because/despite. Overall it’s just not as strong an argument as his other books either. Nonetheless it is that excellent combination of interesting and also entertaining and enjoyable to read. I got through it really quickly as it was a fascinating read, even if I didn’t agree with all of the conclusions.
Another book I’ve recently completed is Lost At Sea by Jon Ronson. It’s a collection of non-fiction pieces covering a variety of strange subjects. Topics include people with strange beliefs in UFOs and psychics; real-life superheroes who patrol the streets to help fight crime; artificial intelligence; home science experiments gone wrong; the obsessions of director Stanley Kubrick. That’s only a brief list, the book covers a great deal more, all linked together by the theme of the strange and extraordinary in every day life. I had previously read and enjoyed one of Jon Ronson’s other books, The Psychopath Test. I found this to be much the same, which is to say that it was not too serious, but instead it managed to be interesting and entertaining. Some of the sections were more interesting that others, but there was a good variety and I enjoyed a great deal of it. I always mean to read more non-fiction, but I am just not in the mood for anything too serious or demanding at the moment, and this was a good book as it was light reading, but fascinating nonetheless.
American Unchained by Dave Gorman is a non-fiction travel book about Gorman’s project to travel from coast-to-coast across America without using any chains, only independent businesses for gas, food and hotels. There is also a documentary of the same name, which I watched just before I read the book. As a travel book it kind of reminded me of Bill Bryson’s The Lost Continent, except not as insightful; perhaps more like Stephen Fry In America. However, Gorman is entertaining and funny in his writing, and overall I enjoyed both the book and the film. They were not as good as Gorman’s other works, but still entertaining.
I have just finished reading Dave Gorman vs. The Rest of the World by Dave Gorman. I enjoy Gorman’s comedy and I liked his previous books Googlewhack Adventure (where he travels around following a chain of Google searches) and Are You Dave Gorman? (where he travels around looking for other people call Dave Gorman). In this one he, er, travels around playing games with people. Okay, it is rather a repetitive format, but Gorman is a funny and entertaining writer and I do enjoy his books. From my posts about board games it should be clear that I enjoy gaming myself, so this one was even more suited to my interests. Gorman not only writes about the games he plays, but also the people he plays with and the places he visits, and he is really a good storyteller. Overall I really enjoyed this one, more so even than his other books, and I found it to be interesting, entertaining and funny, exactly what I was hoping for.
It’s Not Me, It’s You by Jon Richardson is not an autobiography, which is good, because I don’t like celebrity autobiographies. Instead it it a book about the comedian Jon Richardson’s obsessive compulsive personality and perfectionism. I’ve seen Richardson on television where he covers similar material, and I find it funny and also easy to relate to as I am rather obsessive myself. The book was an extension of that; lots of humour and lots of things that I found myself agreeing with. He is also very honest about his personality and his thoughts, which is touching at times but can also be quite depressing in some places (especially when I am seeing my own flaws clearly described). I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from the book, other than that I knew I liked Richardson’s comedy, so I was pleasantly surprised that it was both funny and also quite insightful.
Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer is a fascinating book about memory. Foer is a journalist who was covering the US Memory Championship. Here he met some of the ‘mental athletes’ who compete in the competition by memorising decks of cards and lists of numbers. He was challenged to train to compete in the next competition and took up that challenge and the offer of coaching by British competitor Ed Cooke, an eccentric and funny enthusiast for memory techniques. So the book charts Foer’s progress from his starting point as a novice to his appearance in the final of the competition. Along the way he explores the origins of these memory techniques in ancient Greece, current research that is being done on the subject of memory, and the memories of amnesiacs and savants.
This is a subject that I find fascinating, and Foer covered a lot of the things I was interested in learning more about, especially exploring the idea that a lot of our memory is now externalised, and the role of memorisation in education. It is a really interesting subject, and this book is very well written, with a good balance between following Foer’s progress and exploring the wider topic. It is not one of those self-help books, so he doesn’t go into excessive detail about the techniques he was using, just enough detail for a general understanding (although I plan to read a bit more about it myself).
Overall I thought it was brilliant, exactly the type of book that I wanted to read about memory, and it gave me a lot of think about. There is an extract published here and another one here, both of which can give you a good impression of the book (reading them was what convinced me to buy it and bump it to the top of my to-read pile). I would highly recommend it.
Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks is subtitled ‘Tales of Music and the Brain’, which pretty much sums it up. Much like Sacks’ other books (such as The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat or An Anthropologist On Mars, to name the two that I’ve read) the book draws on case studies to look at various aspects of the subject, which in this book is music and neurology. So there are chapters on specific brain abnormalities that relate to music (such as musical hallucinations or the inability to process music), to aspects like perfect pitch and synaesthesia, to the effect of music on people with Alzheimer’s.
I find the whole topic really interesting, but unfortunately this book overall was not great. For one thing, as someone who has never had any musical training and is generally quite non-musical, it was a bit confusing at times, as the musical terms were never really explained. But mainly I also found that it was rather dull at times, reading as just description after description of Sacks’ patients without sufficient discussion. Sacks also comes across as a music snob at times - I can’t imagine that people who like rock or pop music are not affected by such conditions, but Sacks focuses mainly on classical music.
I have enjoyed Sacks’ books in the past (albeit quite a few years ago now) but this one was just a bit too dull and repetitive. It seemed to oscillate between being too technical and too anecdotal with no accessible middle ground. I do think the subject itself is fascinating though, and last year I read This Is Your Brain On Music by Daniel Levitin, which has a similar focus, but which I thought was far superior to this one.
Dawn of the Dumb by Charlie Brooker is a collection of newspaper columns which previously appeared in the Guardian newspaper between 2005 and 2007. Some of them come from his general column, others from his now-defunct column of television criticism. Last year I read his most recent collection, The Hell Of It All, which follows a similar format, and I really enjoyed it, so much so that I picked up this older one. As should be expected, some of it is pretty out of date, especially the television reviews. Most of the shows he discusses are rubbish reality shows, which I really don’t care about, let alone when they are five or six years old. But Brooker has a great way of mocking this trash, with such delightful vitriol, so it is mostly worth reading even if you don’t get all the references. Even better are the more general columns, which hold up better over time. These are his rants and moans about news, politics and modern life in general (everything from banks to Facebook to break-ups to haircuts to sore throats). Brooker’s writing is very funny, full of misanthropic rants and brilliantly twisted metaphors. He is very good at articulating his hatred for vast sections of the general public, and most of his likes and hates are things that I can entirely relate to. It is not perfect - as I said, it is quite outdated in places, and you may not get all of the references. It can also be too repetitive if you read large sections without a break. But nonetheless, I enjoyed reading it, and it gave me something to laugh over whilst feeling rather miserable. Brooker seems to be writing less these days, as he appears on television more, but I do look forward to reading his columns.
The Devil and Sherlock Holmes by David Grann is a collection of essays with the theme of ‘murder, madness and obsession’. These are all really well-written pieces of journalism, many of which previously appeared in magazines such as The New Yorker. My favourites pieces include the case of a Sherlock Holmes scholar who may have been murdered over his research; the story of a French con-man who poses as runaway school children; and the Polish murder mystery where the killer may have left clues in his novel. Other subjects covered include arson investigation, hunting for giant squid, amnesiac firefighters, New York sandhogs, white supremacist gangs and much more. In the book these essays were grouped together by common themes, but there were some clashes and it is a quite eclectic collection that doesn’t always completely gel together. But the pieces collected here are all well-written and for the most part very interesting. Taking the time to read these essays slowly, not all at once, but taking breaks between them for reading other things, I really appreciated the whole collection.
Blood and Guts by Roy Porter is subtitled ‘a short history of medicine’ and that is essentially what this book provides. It has a number of chapters focussing on infectious diseases, the roles of doctors and hospitals, anatomical knowledge and surgery, the development of laboratory science in medicine and of drugs and therapies like antibiotics. Now I will say that this is a topic I find fascinating and I’ve read quite a few books in this area already. But I wanted one that covered all of the basics and this one did that job excellently, providing a well-written and fascinating account of the subject. (It is a shortened and popularized version of Porter’s textbook The Greatest Benefit to Mankind, which is great for more in-depth discussion of the same subject). I had my own specific reasons for reading this, related to my academic interests, but as a popular, accessible introduction to the subject I’d highly recommend it for anyone looking for just an interesting bit of non-fiction reading.
I’ve always had an interest in space and spaceflight, and the Apollo programme is a particular favourite subject of mine. For unknown reasons I was struck with an urge to revisit the topic and I started by reading two wonderful books, A Man on the Moon by Andrew Chaikin and Moondust by Andrew Smith.
A Man on the Moon is one of the best books I’ve read on the subject, and over the years since I first read it I have recommended it to many people. (Incidentally, I lost my old copy of it at some point, or more likely lent it to someone and forgot to get it back, so I had to buy a new one to read it again; I was more than happy to buy it a second time as it is well worth it).
It is quite a long book, which means that there is plenty of time to explore the whole Apollo programme from start to finish, and it is a really an in depth exploration of the subject, albeit mainly with the focus on the astronauts rather than the engineering side of things. In researching the book, Chaikin had conducted many detailed interviews with the astronauts, their families, NASA workers and so on. This is evident as he gives us a very clear insight into the thoughts and experiences of the astronauts and others involved, as well as a bit of background on how many of them ended up as astronauts. He also doesn’t gloss over the technical details, but presents them in a very easy-to-understand way, which is still very readable (though anyone wanting a lot of technical facts will be disappointed). Overall, the whole book is remarkably well-written and I found it as compelling to read as a good novel.
Moondust is another one that I read before, and felt the need to read again. It is a very different book from the other one. In a way, it kind of picks up where Chaikin’s book left off, as the focus is on the astronauts and what happened to them after Apollo. It is kind of an example of ‘New Journalism’ I suppose, in that the author is very much part of the book, which focuses on his attempts to track down the remaining ‘moonwalkers’ after he realised that of the twelve men, only nine are still alive. As well as interviews with the astronauts about their experiences on the moon and how it affected their later lives, Smith also explores more of the historical period and how Apollo influenced our culture as well. It is a very different take on the subject than Chaikin or any other books I’ve read before, and it is extremely interesting in a different way.
Both of these books are excellent, both very well-written and captivating. For a more complete treatment of the topic I’d have to recommend A Man on the Moon, it really is the best book on Apollo out there that I know of. But Moondust is also highly recommended as presenting a different take on the subject, and it complements the other book really well. I could spend ages trying to explain what it is I find so fascinating about Apollo, but both of these books do it far better than I could. It is such an interesting topic, and I’d really recommend these books for anyone who shares my interest.
Packing For Mars by Mary Roach is all about astronauts and life in space, be it past space missions like Gemini and Apollo, or potential future missions such as sending astronauts to Mars. It covers the psychological, biological and technological aspects of daily life from eating to bathing, as well as hardships such as surviving a crash or the medical effects of life without gravity. It’s a fascinating topic (and really I can never turn down a book about space travel) and in this case it is very entertaining as well. Roach definitely writes to the ‘popular’ end of ‘popular science’ though - it may make me seem like a big nerd, but I’d really rather read technical details about the space shuttle or the Apollo spacecraft than about the potentials of sex in zero gravity (that’s one of the chapters here). But I still liked this book - it’s not a serious technical book (I’ve got several of those that are excellent) but rather it is meant to be an accessible, fun, entertaining, light read, and it was very good at being all of those things, with some really interesting content as well.
Rats, Lice and History by Hans Zinsser is a delightful book. The subtitle of the book is ‘Being a Study in Biography, which, after Twelve Preliminary Chapters Indispensable for the Preparation of the Lay Reader, Deals with the Life History of TYPHUS FEVER’, which should give you some idea of what it’s about. It starts with a consideration of the role of scientists in discussing history (Zinsser himself was a scientist rather than a historian), and then goes on to give a lot of background about diseases and epidemics in general (with lots of interesting examples) before considering typhus more directly, and looking at the roles of rats and lice in spreading the disease, as well as the biological details. It was written in 1935, and while it is occasionally dated in places (for the science, the language and some of the opinions of the author) it’s nonetheless a great read, and Zinsser has a lovely style that is often humourous as well as informative. One of my favourite parts of the book, which caused me to attract some strange looks by laughing out loud on the train, is the footnote after the word ‘saprophyte’ which states, ‘if the reader does not understand this word, it is too bad’. It’s a fascinating book, both for the factual information within but also for providing a look at the perspectives of past scientists. It helps that I have a background in microbiology and an interest in this type of history, so I’m not sure how much it would appeal to anyone else, but I loved it.