Red Letter Day

Friday, September 19, 2008

Books I have read lately

Here are some brief reviews of books I have read recently:

The Grand Inquisitor's Manual: A History of Terror in the Name of God
by Jonathan Kirsch
A fascinating history of the inquisition and how it presaged the 20th century's atrocities. Very strong on the history, weaker in the author's attempt to tie the inquisition to present-day events

Throwing Fire: Projectile Technology through History
by Alfred W. Crosby
The anthropological history of humankind's development of projectile technology from the earliest stones to ballistic missiles. A unique mix of history and biology.

The Diamond of Darkhold: The Fourth Book of Ember (Books of Ember) and The Books of Ember
by Jeanne DuPrau
A post-apocalyptic series for younger readers about the world after a massive war; excellent characterization and plot, and truly a pleasure to read

13 Things That Don't Make Sense: The Most Baffling Scientific Mysteries of Our Time
by Michael Brooks
A good survey of thirteen current mysteries in the world of science, from physics to biology to evolution. Very sharp and smart.

Plague War
by Jeff Carlson
The second book in a two-book (so far) series on life on Earth after a nanobot plague. Some good action, but overall very confusing and uneven.

The City in Mind: Notes on the Urban Condition
by James Howard Kunstler
An top-notch survey of the social and cultural trajectories of a dozen of the world's great cities, and how the choices they have made in development have affected their quality of life. Intelligent and with a wry sense of humor.

Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says about Us)
by Tom Vanderbilt
One of the best of the recent spate of books on mundane topics, in this case traffic engineering. The author's deft hands turn this topic into a fascinating study of human social behavior and will make anyone who drives think of things in an entirely different way.

The Man with the Iron Heart
by Harry Turtledove
The king of alt-history turns in a solid, workmanlike effort featuring the trademark Turtledove storytelling style; based on the fascinating premise of what would have happened if German had engaged in guerilla warfare after WWII, with obvious parallels to our Iraq situation.

Empires of Trust: How Rome Built--and America Is Building--a New World
by Thomas F. Madden
The author focuses on the overlooked Roman republican period, comparing the rise of Rome with the rise of America in the social and political arenas. A nice change of pace from the usual comparisons of the two cultures based on the Imperial period.

The Snake Charmer: A Life and Death in Pursuit of Knowledge
by Jamie James
A pleasantly entertaining biography of a renowned herpetologist and his tragic death. Good creepy descriptions of serpent natural history mixed with occasionally dramatic events.

The Valley-Westside War (Crosstime Traffic)
by Harry Turtledove
Another entry in Turtledove's juvenile series; this one is a pedestrian tale of life in LA a hundred plus years after a nuclear war. Mildly entertaining, but one of the weakest of the bunch so far.

Napoleon's Privates: 2,500 Years of History Unzipped
by Tony Perrottet
A light, trivial and entertaining look at the sexual foibles of world history. Excellent cocktail-party fodder, but this is an appetizer, not a meal.

Beyond Fear
by Bruce Schneier
Unique insider's perspective into the world of security and defense. Truly fascinating, and useful for everyone from individual citizens to security professionals.

Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America
by Eric Jay Dolin
An amazing historic tale of some 300 years of American maritime history. The author does a fine job mixing the gruesome with the mundane, while covering the social, technological, and political history of whaling, including a real insight into the lives of average whale-men and their families.

The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes - and Why
by Amanda Ripley
A look at the psychological and physiological aspects of human behavior when disaster strikes. The author is very good at bringing out the dramatic events of disasters while showing a touch for human interest and psychology while also sharing practical examples that might help future survivors.

Sideways In Crime
by Lou Anders
A decent anthology of alt-history and crime mash-up stories. Like most books of this type, there are good stories mixed with the mediocre.

Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior
by Ori Brafman
A fun, light pop-psychology tome about the hidden influencers on our behaviors. The book is quite short, but very engagingly written with enough nuggets of interest to hold the readers attention.

A World Lit Only by Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance: Portrait of an Age
by William Manchester
Really three books in one; a fascinating section on the medieval mind that really gives a feel of what it would be like to live back then, a middle section which contains a solid, workmanlike history of the Reformation, and finally, a completely tacked-on, although still interesting story of Magellan. Each could stand alone as a short book, but together they feel artificially joined.

The Accidental Mind: How Brain Evolution Has Given Us Love, Memory, Dreams, and God
by David J. Linden
An overview of brain science, with good coverage of how the brain works and how various aspects of the brain may have evolved. Overall an amazingly complete survey in such a short book.

The Power Makers: Steam, Electricity, and the Men Who Invented Modern America
by Maury Klein
A book on the economic and industrial history of electric power in America. Contrary to the title, steam power is only about 1/5 of the overall book, and there is almost no coverage of the science or technology, with almost all the focus on the economics and marketing of power. The title is misleading; as a technology book, it is very bad, as an economic history of electricity, it is very good.



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