I enjoy reading but go through periods where I’m not reading as much as I’d like. I used to write “book reports” after I finished a book and post them here, but I got out of that habit. In the last year and a half I’ve kicked up my reading again but I know I’ll never getting around to writing my old book reports, so here’s a list of what I’ve read recently. Most recently read books are on top; the list starts at the beginning of 2019, which is at the bottom.
Searching for Bobby Fischer
By: Fred Waitzkin
After reading The Immortal Game, we re-watched the movie Searching for Bobby Fischer, one of our favorites from the 80’s. Audible offered me the book for free, so I read it. The movie is more interesting; the book wanders quite a bit and the reading of it is the worst of any Audible title I’ve listened to. Sentences are repeated (I think they’re unedited alternative takes) and the reader inserts “umms” and “uhs” to make it sound like he’s just speaking off the cuff instead of reading a book.
The Immortal Game: A History of Chess
By: David Shenk
Shenk uses one of the classic chess games in history, a game played by Adolf Anderssen and Lionel Kieseritzky in 1851, as a framework for telling the 1400-year history of the game. Anderssen sacrificed both rooks, a bishop, and his queen then checkmated Kieseritzky (who lost only 3 pawns) in 22 moves in an informal game during a break in the first world championship chess tournament in London.
Agent Sonya: Moscow’s Most Daring Wartime Spy
By: Ben Macintyre
Ursula Kuczynski aka “agent Sonya” is probably the 20th century’s most successful spy who you’ve never heard of. From China to Poland, Switzerland, and the English countryside, Kuczynski was involved in everything from an attempted assassination of Hitler to transferring US nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union, all while raising a family of three children with three different fathers without revealing her clandestine activities.
ENIAC: The Triumphs and Tragedies of the World’s First Computer
BY: Scott McCartney
It’s hard to come to a solid conclusion about the “invention” of the computer. You have to ignore a few people who had some very good ideas a very long time ago and ignore the shortcomings of the machines we look back on as “computers” (such as whether or not they were able to run stored programs or were built for a dedicated purpose). Depending on whose work you ignore, you come to different conclusions. This is one such conclusion.
Seizing the Enigma: The Race to Break the German U-Boats Codes, 1939–1943
By: David Kahn
Yet another book about code-breaking in WWII.
AC/DC: The Savage Tale of the First Standards War
By: Tom McNichol
Ironically, after settling on 120 VAC (at least here in the US) to run your light bulbs and washing machines, we convert a whole lot of AC into DC and heat to run our computers, TVs, cars, and mobile devices.
In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette
By: Hampton Sides
The tale of one of the last polar expeditions that fell for the unfounded idea that once you got past the ring of ice that surrounded the North Pole, you’d find a tropical polar sea. And that you could get there by going to an island north of Siberia and just walking. Needless to say, it didn’t work out well. A tragic adventure story with a bit of a surprise ending.
Waco: A Survivor’s Story
By: David Thibodeau
David Thibodeau met David Koresh as a 24-year-old musician and ended up moving to Waco to live in Koresh’s commune. He was one of 9 survivors of the mass murder of their community committed by Janet Reno’s FBI on April 19, 1993, and one of only 2 who didn’t serve any jail time on false charges that were trumped up to cover the failure of the government to honor the rights of its citizens.
This is a fascinating inside account that doesn’t sugar-coat the moral failures of Koresh, but which tells the story of real people who just wanted to learn more about the Bible from someone they believed knew more about it than they did. This was not a suicide cult, not an apocalyptic doomsday cult, and arguably, not a cult at all (though I would be one of those arguing about that last point).
This was a very interesting book. Netflix has a six-part miniseries based on a combination of this book and one written by the lead FBI negotiator.
Reality Is Not What It Seems: The Journey to Quantum Gravity
By: Carlo Rovelli
My total knowledge of string theory and loop quantum gravity comes from the sitcom The Big Bang Theory. This book makes the case for the latter and does so in a way that non-physicists can understand. That being said, this is heady stuff.
For example, one might imagine that if one built a room, that there are an infinite number of volumes that the room could be. That is, you could divide the room in half as many times as you’d like and you’d never reach the smallest possible volume of the room. Turns out that’s wrong. Not only is there a minimum volume of space, but physicists can tell you how big it is. (It’s got like 19 or 20 zeros after the decimal, so it’s really small.)
Think about space. In between the galaxies (which themselves are huge) are enormous volumes of empty space. What is in space? There’s no air; there’s no gasses of any kind. Maybe some single atoms or molecules every once in a while, but what is “empty” space made up of?
In high school we learned that light has properties of both waves and particles. Turns out “space” does, too. The waves are what we think of as gravity. The particles, or quanta of gravity, are what constitutes space.
Is there an end to the universe? How big is it? Think about our three-dimensional planet. If you set out in one direction and walk in a straight line, you’ll end up right back where you started . Turns out space works the same way. Take off in a straight line with the Earth behind you, and you will eventually be back to Earth.
Yep, reality is stranger than you think.
The Story of Human Language
BY: John McWhorter
This is an Audible book, part of the Great Courses series. It’s about 25-30 hours of 30-minute lectures on human language. This book changed the way I think about language.
Since Bible publishing is my field, I’ve had to come to terms with the idea that every Bible I’ve read is a translation of the original text (which was written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek). The original languages are no longer spoken except as an academic exercise. Even worse, the characters in the Gospels were probably speaking Aramaic originally, and their words were translated to Greek to be written down. So when we read the words of Jesus, we have to recognize that he’s been translated and re-translated before we read him.
So I have some understanding of the challenges of language and how languages differ. But this book introduced me to how language evolves. You’ll find I’m trying harder now not to argue about “farther” vs. “further”, “on accident” vs. “by accident”, and “ask” vs. “axe”. Just as climate changes, and to argue that the climate as it existed at a certain time is “ideal” and that we should strive to return to that, so does language change, and to argue that we should freeze the “rules” of language at any given instant and force everyone to speak it that way is just spitting into the wind.
Brave new World
BY: Aldous Huxley
I often say that if, in fact, God is directly involved in human affairs, then his giving of Star Wars to George Lucas was his greatest mistake. Star Wars is built on a great premise, but fell apart somewhere in the process of moving from Lucas’s brain to script to screen.
After reading 1984 I figured I should read the other dystopian-future book that most people read in high school but I somehow missed. Brave New World is built on an interesting premise but just isn’t well written. Again, it’s a great idea placed in the hands of a bad writer. There are so many more interesting things that could have happened to the characters. The characters could have actually grown and changed as a result of their experiences. But none of that happened.
Definitely not worth the time.
Breaking Free: How I Escaped Polygamy, the FLDS Cult, and my Father, Warren Jeffs
By: Rachel Jeffs
Years ago I read John Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven, which details the history of Mormon fundamentalism. That book led me to the conclusion that what you and I know as “Mormons” (members of the Latter-Day Saints Church) are watered-down posers. Real, Joseph-Smith Mormonism is to be found only in the child-raping, prophet-following fundamentalist versions of the LDS Church, the most famous of which is Warren Jeffs’ hebephilic cult, which he continues to run from his prison cell near Palestine Texas, where he’s severing life-plus-20 for sexual assault of a child.
This book lacks the in-depth analysis of the theology of the FLDS cult that makes Unfollow so good, though it does address it from a practical side. For example, the author doesn’t argue the scriptural basis for doubting her father’s claim to the title of God’s prophet, but instead argues that a man who molests his own daughters can’t possibly be getting revelation directly from God.
This is an interesting view from the inside of a cult and is a very quick read. Audible thought I’d like it after reading Unfollow, but they’re very different books.
BY: Megan Phelps-Roper
This is the best book I’ve listened to in the last couple of years. The author grew up in Westboro Baptist Church, famous for protesting at the funerals of soldiers, while carrying signs like “God Hates Fags”. She became the church’s de facto online spokesperson on Twitter, where she developed a reputation of delivering pure, unadulterated, Bible-based hate with wit and a smiley face emoticon.
As a person who holds the Bible in a position of great respect and authority, and who went through my own separation from an authoritarian, spiritually abusive, fundamentalist Baptist church 20+ years ago, it was absolutely fascinating to read this story of a person who could both back the church’s belief system and her own rejection of it using solid, Bible-based arguments. Typical books in this genre focus on the control the church exerts over its members, convey significant bitterness, and end up with the author rejecting their faith and turning the same kind of hate back on the church they’re leaving. Megan brings the reader into her family and lays out the rationale for their beliefs and practices. But she just as effectively lays out the arguments against those beliefs and practices.
This book goes beyond a simple tale of leaving a “cult”. It identifies specific strategies and tactics for winning people who are blinded by their deeply held beliefs. In an odd way, I believe people on both sides of controversial, emotional issues would benefit from this book.
The Making of the Atomic Bomb
By: Richard Rhodes
My son-in-law gave me this book years ago and I started into it but it literally starts with a history of the Jewish people from Abraham, progresses through the evolution of science, then lays out atomic theory from first principles. Turns out if you stick with it, it’s pretty good. It’s both thorough and entertaining. It does a good job of addressing the science, philosophy, politics, and ethics of atomic weapons.
BY: GEORGE ORWELL
Current events kept reminding me of what it must be like to live in an Orwellian dystopia, so I thought I’d revisit this book to refresh my memory. If Orwell had written a prequel that described the cultural revolution that brought Big Brother and The Party into power, I suspect it would read like today’s headlines.
Black Rednecks and White Liberals
BY: Thomas SowelL
This is a series of lengthy essays on race and ethnicity. The history of “ghetto culture” is eye-opening, as are essays on the history of slavery and of black education in the US. Chapters on Jews and Germans are just as good but since I was reading with the present situation in mind, I only skimmed those.
The First Conspiracy
By: Brad Meltzer, Josh Mensch
Read this after reading The Lincoln Conspiracy by the same authors. They take what small amount of information exists about the plot to kill George Washington and stretch it into a book.
The Lincoln Conspiracy
By: Brad Meltzer, Josh Mensch
This isn’t just a good book about the plot to kill Lincoln on his trip to Washington for his inauguration, but also offers insights into the attitudes of the time toward slavery and race.
By: Charles Murray, Catherine Bly Cox
I read this book probably 20 years ago but found it interesting to re-read. This is a good history of the Apollo program and the people who made it work. I’ll probably be back to read more about the space program later. I’ve read a lot about Apollo but am interested in earlier (Mercury and Gemini) and later (Shuttle and ISS) programs.
The Man Who Knew the Way to the Moon
By: Todd Zwillich
The story of John C. Houbolt, one of the earliest advocates of Lunar Orbit Rendezvous, the mission plan that eventually landed astronauts on the moon. The original plan was to launch a giant rocket, fly directly to the moon, turn it around backwards and land the whole, 90′ beast on the moon. Then launch from there for a direct flight home. This is laughable now, but for a time this was seen as least expensive and least risky plan to get people to the moon and home again safely. LOR, combined with Earth Orbit Rendezvous, is what we ended up doing: That is, put a small vehicle in orbit around the earth, have it dock with a lunar lander, go to the moon and enter orbit, send a landing party to the surface while the Command Module remains in orbit, then rendezvous the lander and CM in lunar orbit before heading back to Earth. This book is told from a pro-Houbolt perspective; there are others who argue that Houbolt was just one of dozens of engineers who advocated LOR, and that he wasn’t that vital to the decision.
Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II
By: Liza Mundy
My primary interest in this book is the code-breaking part, but the cultural commentary on the role of women in the early 20th century is also fascinating. This is kind of a continuation of my interest in WWII spy stuff that started earlier this year.
Apollo 8: The Thrilling Story of the First Mission to the Moon
By: Jeffrey Kluger
I’ve read a lot of books about the space program, since it was a defining part of my childhood, growing up in the 1960’s. This book is mostly the story of Frank Borman and Apollo 8.
In the Enemy’s House: The Secret Saga of the FBI Agent and the Code Breaker Who Caught the Russian Spies
By: Howard Blum
A continuation of my interest in the early CIA and MI6, but definitely the poorest book of the lot.
The Lost City of the Monkey God: A True Story
By: Douglas Preston
I have an interest in the history of the Americas prior to Columbus, and this seemed like an interesting title about a part of the world (Central America) that I hadn’t read a lot about. Other than very lengthy chapters about global warming and pandemics, this was pretty good.
Rogue Heroes: The History of the SAS, Britain’s Secret Special Forces Unit That Sabotaged the Nazis and Changed the Nature of War
By: Ben Macintyre
Not my favorite of Macintyre’s books, but still good.
Agent Zigzag: A True Story of Nazi Espionage, Love, and Betrayal
By: Ben MacIntyre
The Wright Brothers
By: David McCullough
I’ve read other books on the Wright Brothers. This one was pretty good.
A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal
BY: Ben Macintyre
The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution
BY: Eric Foner
This book has really helped to re-shape what I understand about the Constitution, federalism, and racism. I think those of us who tend toward conservative political positions tend to quote the Constitution as written and intended by the Founders and ignore the enormous effect of the Civil War and post-Civil War period on how we think about who we are and how we experience America.
Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies
BY: Ben Macintyre
Very fascinating background behind the invasion of Normandy
Operation Mincemeat: How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured an Allied Victory
By: Ben Macintyre
If you’ve never heard of Operation Mincemeat, you definitely need to read this book. This reads like the plot of an over-the-top Hollywood movie, but took place in real life.
The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War
By: Ben Macintyre
This was the first of Ben Macintyre’s books I read. It is an amazing account of a Russian double-agent who spent years handing over Soviet secrets to the British, which changed history—but you’ve probably never heard of him. The rest of the Macintyre books listed above are all good even though I may not comment on each one.
Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game
By: Michael Lewis
Saw this movie but thought the book looked more interesting.
The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History
By: Robert M. Edsel
Saw this movie and assumed the book would be more interesting. Not completely disappointed. Well-written.
The Suspect: An Olympic Bombing, the FBI, the Media, and Richard Jewell, the Man Caught in the Middle
By: Kent Alexander
Saw the author interviewed on TV and thought the book would be interesting. It was. Better than the made-for-TV movie version he was being interviewed about.
The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West
By: David McCullough
This was a tough read but turned out to be very interesting. For those of you who, like me, assume the Northwest Ordinance has something to do with Oregon and Washington — prepare to be surprised.
Inside Trump’s White House: The Real Story of His Presidency
By: Doug Wead
The book does not live up to its title. The author had access to the President and his staff for a very short period of time. There’s no unreported, minute-by-minute account of things you think you know from seeing it on the news. There’s no insight into how things work that you never realized. It’s just an account of the few interviews the author got with a few members of the family and staff.
Game of Thorns: The Inside Story of Hillary Clinton’s Failed Campaign and Donald Trump’s Winning Strategy
By: Doug Wead
Like the next Doug Wead book I read, it lacks both depth and scope. No insights into Hillary’s failed strategy; no real insights into Trump’s winning strategy. These books were hyped a lot on Fox News but really aren’t that good.
The Plot Against the President: The True Story of How Congressman Devin Nunes Uncovered the Biggest Political Scandal in U.S. History
By: Lee Smith
This is a must-read for every American. Most people don’t realize the degree to which the media has hidden an attempt by key members of the law enforcement and intelligence community to overthrow the President. And as of this date (mid-2020) it’s still going on.
Magicians of the Gods: Sequel to the International Bestseller Fingerprints of the Gods
By: Graham Hancock
I’ve read a lot of alt-ancient-history books. I think there’s more to the idea that highly advanced civilizations have come and gone on this planet than most people have even thought about.
The Low-Carb Athlete: The Official Low-Carbohydrate Nutrition Guide for Endurance and Performance
By: Ben Greenfield
I was looking for help figuring out how to eat before doing long runs. This was a little too general and a little too high-performance for me. I’ve subsequently discovered that if I use an electrolyte supplement like nuum tablets in my water, I can pretty much do a morning run for 2.5 hours with nothing but coffee for breakfast. We have a lot of stored energy. Might as well use it.
The British Are Coming: The War for America, Lexington to Princeton, 1775-1777 (The Revolution Trilogy Book 1)
By: Rick Atkinson
This is the first of a trilogy. It is extremely long and detailed, but interesting nonetheless. I joke that it takes as long to read as the events took to happen.
Wild Bill: The True Story of the American Frontier’s First Gunfighter
By: Tom Clavin
I hadn’t read anything from this period of history, so this was pretty interesting. It dispels a lot of myths about Wild Bill.
Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster
By: Adam Higginbotham
Very interesting read that reveals both the technical details of what went wrong at this massive nuclear melt-down and how a bureaucracy bent on approaching all problems by denying they exist should not be trusted with nuclear reactors.
America Before: The Key to Earth’s Lost Civilization
By: Graham Hancock
I am about an 80% Graham Hancock fan. I haven’t read his books on hallucinogenics and spirituality, but I’ve read most of his books dealing with ancient history. His classic work is Fingerprints of the Gods, which prompted me to read a lot of alt-history back in the 1990’s. Some of his speculation about the lost continent of Atlantis in that book has been disproven over the years, but there is a lot there that will change how you think about history. This book deals with American pre-history and calls into question the commonly held opinion that the first “native Americans” came from Asia across a land bridge that spanned the Bering Strait.
The Reckoning: A Novel
By: John Grisham
I’ve read all of Grisham’s legal novels. His subsequent novels mainly about life in the South have not been as good. This one is told in a very interesting way but is somewhat unsatisfying in the end. The first chapter tells you what is going to happen in the end. The book is not about how we got there, but why we got there.
Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity, and Disease
By: Robert H. Lustig
One of several low-carb, high-fat diet books I’ve read since adopting a LCHF lifestyle in August 2018. This one is a lot like the others.
Island of the Lost: An Extraordinary Story of Survival at the Edge of the World
By: Joan Druett
Several years ago, I read quite a few lost-at-sea books (I tend to get into a topic and read everything I can find). This book is unique in that it tells the story of two ships stranded 20 miles apart on the opposite ends of the same island at the same time, and how the differences between how each of the captains and crews approached the problem resulted in death for one crew and rescue for the other.
Life Inside the Bubble: Why a Top-Ranked Secret Service Agent Walked Away from It All
By: Dan Bongino
I normally don’t read books by politicians and news reporters about current political situations, but I like Dan Bongino and thought the book might be good. It was OK.
Deep State Target: How I Got Caught in the Crosshairs of the Plot to Bring Down President Trump
By: George Papadopoulos
Everybody needs to read this to understand how the Deep State plotted against Donald Trump to overturn the results of the 2016 election.
Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble
By: Dan Lyons
This is a book about an old guy who gets a job in a tech start-up and faces generational challenges.
The Case Against Sugar
By: Gary Taubes
One of the better books that describes how we got to where the government is recommending a diet that is killing Americans. There are a lot of details to get bogged down in here, but the general theme about Big Sugar shaping everything you think you know about the safety of both natural and artificial sugar is fascinating. You are being poisoned and your sugar addiction will kill you, one way or another, but you are in denial and will happily comply.
Why Diets Fail (Because You’re Addicted to Sugar): Science Explains How to End Cravings, Lose Weight, and Get Healthy
By: Nicole M. Avena Phd
I read this because I thought it would help me understand why people have a hard time sticking with a low-carb diet, but it turned out to be yet another low-carb, high-fat diet book that didn’t offer a lot of new insights (assuming you understand that diets only work to the degree that they reduce the consumption of carbs, and that you are addicted to sugar).
The Curse of Oak Island: The Story of the World’s Longest Treasure Hunt
By: Randall Sullivan
I am a huge fan of the History Channel’s The Curse of Oak Island and have seen every episode. I was looking for a book that went through the history as opposed to proposing new theories involving Bigfoot, aliens, Templars, etc. This is a good review of the history of digging on the island.