Category Archives: books

How Churchill’s “A History of the English-Speaking Peoples” Got on My Reading List

If you’ve been following along, you know that among my latest obsessions is William Manchester’s 3-volume biography of Winston Churchill, The Last Lion. As of tonight, I am very close to finishing the second volume (the Second World War has just begin with Germany’s invasion of Poland).

In the prelude to war, Churchill, in addition to doing his best to get Great Britain into the game, was busy working on his mammoth  A History of the English-Speaking Peoples. Descriptions of his research for the book, the subject matter (including the various kings of England) and quoted passages fascinated me, to the point where I found myself wishing I could read that book, too.

And so, I’ve added all 4 volumes of Churchill’s History of the English-Speaking Peoples and I’m looking forward to reading that. But maybe not immediately after finishing the Churchill biography. I think I deserve a little lighter fare. Possibilities include:

  • John Scalzi’s Lock In.
  • Steven Gould’s Exo.
  • And Jack McDevitt’s Coming Home, the next Alex Benedict . This doesn’t come out until November, but Jack, wonderful guy that he is, has sent a proof my way. I really can’t wait to read this one, as the Alex/Chase novels are among my favorites.

Bottom line, I have plenty to read, but my obsession with Churchill continues.

Halfway Through the Churchill Biography

At some point today, I passed the halfway mark in William Manchester’s 3-volume biography of Winston Churchill. The 3 volumes total 131 hours of listening time.  I am more than halfway through the second volume, and the pivotal year 1938 is rapidly approaching a close.

I’m sort of obsessed with the biography right now. A few nights ago, Michael J. Sullivan was telling me about the latest book he was reading, and asked what I was reading. “Second volume of the Churchill biography,” I told him. He gave me a strange look. “Still Churchill? Light reading, eh?” Or something like that. I’ve gotten that reaction a few times. But I can’t help it. I can’t seem to turn away. One reason is that the books, though long, are never dull. But there is another, more important reason.

I’ve said this before, but I’m always amazed at how much we gloss over history while in school. Understandably, this isn’t really the fault of the schools. History is a long, detailed interwoven story, and even with 16 years of schooling, you can only skim the surface. That said, there are event in 20th century history for which I knew nearly nothing. The First World War was one. I knew the very basics taught in 4th or 5th grade. Or maybe 7th or 8th grade, I can’t remember. The first volume of Churchill’s biography went into great detail on the first World War and it was fascinating.

Then, too, my understanding of British politics has been somewhat limited. I had an amazing professor in school who dove into some parliamentary politics, using Great Britain as a model, but that was more philosophical, instead of real history. It’s fascinating to read the behind-the-scenes political mechanics of Great Britain.

There is also something utterly frustrating about Britain’s role in Europe in the second half of the 1930s, with the appeasers giving Germany what they want. It’s like watching some riveting television drama unfold, in which you suspect (or even know) the outcome. I keep wanting to shout, “Get in the game, already!” and then remember that this has already happened.

But halfway through, I can say that so far it is one of the best biographies I’ve ever read.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to climb into my time machine and get back to the events of 1938 so that I can see what happens. Of course, I know what happens. But the book is that good.

The Funniest Scene I’ve Ever Read

Today, I encountered the funniest fictional scene I’ve ever read. Prior to this, the funniest scene I’d ever encountered is a scene that took place in Stephen King’s 11/22/63, where Jake Epping is in Derry with a “a touch of the bug.” Today, a new scene overtook that as the funniest I’ve ever read.

While my computer was downloading patching and therefore, completely useless, I read more of A Prayer for Owen Meany, waiting for the patches to be installed. Those familiar with the book might guess the scene in question. Yes, it is the VW scene. The premise of the scene was amusing enough. But how rapidly things fell apart in that scene–I could see it playing out as though I was one of the students in the great hall, or near the marble staircase, seeing it unfold.

I laughed so hard that people walking passed my office had to stop to look in. I laughed so hard that it brought streams of tears to my eyes. I laughed so hard that, much like a nuclear chain reaction, it began a self-sustaining thing, a living, breathing thing. I fell off my chair and sat on the floor, laughing, crying, coughing, choking. I don’t know how much time passed before I finally settled down. The patches were still installing on my computer. But when I finally came out of it, I felt completely, and thoroughly revitalized. It was amazing.

And throughout the day, as I’ve played the scene over in mind, more laughter and snickers emerge. Had I seen that scene played out on the big screen, it would not have been as funny as it was in my imagination. It was the Platonic perfection of slapstick comedy barely disguised as literature. If you’ve never read the book, it is a fantastic read, but I would say that it is worth reading just for that scene.

My sides, my abdomen, my cheeks, and my lower back are all sore. That is how hard I was laughing.

Reading My Grandfather’s Bookshelf

My grandfather had this bookshelf mounted to the wall above the pull-out sofa in the guest room. Actually, it was two bookshelves, one atop the other, dark planks of wood on grey metal rails. For as long as he and my grandmother lived in their apartment in Spring Valley, New York, those bookshelves were there. I remember them from back when I was a little kid, before I had learned to read. And once I could read, the books there were something of a mystery to me.

Every now and then, when I’m pressed for something interesting to read, and not wanted to tread down familiar paths, I use a gimmick that has worked for me on a number of occasions. I come up with a reading theme. Once, in 1997, I decided to read all of the books that David G. Hartwell mentioned in his book Age of Wonders. Another time, I decided that I would attempt to read a biography for every President of the United States. I rarely completed these ventures, but they did get me out of my rut. Once out, one book often readily leads to another.

My current reading theme is a tough one. I call it Reading My Grandfather’s Bookshelf. The idea is to actually read the books that were such a mystery to me as a little boy and later as a curious teen. There is the difficulty in remembering the books. The book I do remember on my Grandfather’s bookshelf were impressed on my brain through sheer repetition of visits. I would study the bookshelf at night, whenever I visited. Sometimes, I’d study it during the day when I was bored. I was rarely bored and as I kid, I wasn’t as enthusiastic about spending my days reading as I am today. Still, I remember quite a few of the books on the shelf. Specifically, I remember these:

  • Future Shock by Alvin Toffler
  • Clan of the Cave Bear by Jane Auel
  • Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn by Henry Miller
  • Rabbit, Run by John Updike
  • Eye of the Needle by Ken Follett
  • The Sensuous Dirty Old Man by Doctor A.1
  • The Most of Burns2 by George Burns

There are others that are less clear in my mind. If I think hard, every now and then I remember one. If only there was a picture of those bookshelves, but to my knowledge, no such picture exists. That’s okay, because this seems like a good enough start for me. I suspect that when I finish my current book (A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving), I’ll start reading my grandfather’s bookshelf with Rabbit, Run by John Updike, and follow that up with Clan of the Cave Bear. If I like either of those books, there are sequels. If not, maybe Eye of the Needle or Future Shock.

It’s refreshing to read fiction outside science fiction, fantasy and horror every now and then3 and these books also have pleasant memories associated with them, despite the fact that I’ve never read them. For decades, when I slept at my grandparents house, I slept with these books keeping watch over me.

Notes

  1. By Isaac Asimov. I inherited this book from my grandfather, and still have it.
  2. An omnibus of several of Burns’ books.
  3. I read plenty of nonfiction outside the genre, but no a whole lot of fiction.

What I’m Reading, May 20, 2014 Edition

For no particular reason, here’s what I am reading at the moment, and what I plan to read in the not-too-distant future.

  • Our Oriental Heritage by Will Durant1
  • The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson. Not really sure what prodded me to try reading this book, as I rarely read fantasy of this sort, but I’m enjoying what I’ve read so far.

Of course, both of these books are monstrously long at around 1,000 pages a piece2. When I finish these, here are a few books I’m looking forward to reading in the near future:

  • Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King3
  • Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer
  • The Life of Greece by Will Durant
  • Dangerous Women edited by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois
  • Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie
  • VS Day by Allen Steele
  • Great Baseball Writing by the editors of Sports Illustrated
  • The Boys of Summer by Roger Kahn
  • Ball Four by Jim Boulton
  • Theft of Swords by Michael J. Sullivan4

As always, this list is a moving target that changes with my mood, but it should give some idea of what I’m looking forward to reading over the next few months.

Notes

  1. My third time reading this book, but my first time listening to the audiobook, which is quite good.
  2. Or about 50 hours each as audiobooks.
  3. Comes out on June 3.
  4. I’ve been promising Michael I’d read one of his books for a long time now. He’s bought me enough beer so I owe him at least that much.

A Box of Books, A Desert Island, and Me

In a story that I’ve been writing1, off and on again, the main character tries to disappear from society in the Alaskan wilderness. He has good reasons for doing this. He brings along with him box of a dozen books. Eleven of these books is the entire set of Will Durant’s Story of Civilization. The twelfth book is The Baseball Encyclopedia. All of these books have significance to the story.

I am currently re-reading the first volume of Will Durant’s Story of Civilization series, Our Oriental Heritage, and in doing so, I recalled the meme that occasionally pops up on the Internet about taking only one book with you if you were stranded on a desert island. I considered this and thought, why just one? What if I could save a box of books, along with myself, upon that desert island. What would be in that box?

Well, as you might guess, the 11-volume Story of Civilization series would make up the bulk of it. It totals upwards of 4 million words across 10,000 pages. Yet, aside from the length, it is populated with every personality of historical significance from the earliest dawning of civilizations, through the transition into the industrial revolution. With these books, you’d never truly be alone. You’d have thousands of years of human history to explore, and tens of thousands of people to meet.

Also in that box would be Isaac Asimov’s 3-volume autobiography, In Memory Yet GreenIn Joy Still Felt, and I. Asimov. Although I’ve read each of these books more than a dozen times, they bring a kind of comfort to me, and that would be important, stranded alone as I would be on the island.

That’s 14 books in my box. Can we make it an even 20? I think I’d also bring along Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. It would give me a chance to read it again. I struggled with the series at the beginning, but it grew on me, and by the time I finished the whole thing last year, I was ready to read it over in earnest, looking for the gems that I missed along the way. There are 8 books in this series, which would put me at 22 books, instead of 20, but I can live with that.  22 books, covering the vast majority of human history, the life of one of my favorite writers, and the imagined universe of another of my favorite writers.

If I had to be stranded on a desert island, these are the 22 book I’d want to be stranded with.

Notes

  1. Not the novel.

Will Durant’s AGE OF FAITH Now Available On Audible

I am a huge fan of Will (and Ariel) Durant’s Story of Civilization series of history books. I have all 11 volumes in hardcover. The first book was published in 1935 and the last one in the early 1980s, I believe. There are an astonishingly comprehensive history of human civilization up through Napoleon.

I’ve read the first three books in the series, two of them twice. Last year, I noticed that they were being released as audio books, new recording from some big names, including Grover Gardner and Stefan Rudnicki. The first three books came out and I bought them at once, thinking about how delightful it would be to listen to them on my daily walks.

Every day for months, I check Audible’s site in the hope that the fourth volume, The Age of Faith, which I haven’t yet read, will come out. And every day, I go away disappointed.

But not today. When I popped into Audible’s site 10 minutes ago, I saw this:

Age of Faith

The Age of Faith is the longest book in a series of long books. The audio version of this book alone is over 61 hours. For comparison, I listened just over 61 hours of audio book in all of April. But I have to say, I was so excited when I saw it there, and it will very likely be the next book I listen to after I finish the book I’m reading now.

It is also possible that Grover Gardner will be back to narrate another of the later volumes, as this tweet from Gardner hints at earlier this year:

In any case, I’m super-excited that this latest book is finally out and I can’t wait to listen to it.

Another Good Review for Beyond the Sun edited by Bryan Thomas Schmidt

Yesterday, I learned of another positive review for the Beyond the Sun anthology edited by Bryan Thomas Schmidt.

Bryan put together a great lineup of stories in this anthology, and this review in True Review specifically calls out stories by Brad R. Torgersen (“The Bricks of Eta Cassiopeiae”), Alex Shvartsman (“The Far Side of the Wilderness,” a story I adored, by the way), Jason Sanford (“Rumspringa”), Robert Silverberg (“The Dybbyk of Mazel Tov IV”), and Mike Resnick (“Observation Post”).

Congrats to Bryan and all of the authors included in the anthology for its continued positive praise.

Retiring From My Book Review Column at IGMS

I recently retired from my book review column, “The Science of Wonder” over at InterGalactic Medicine Show. I wrote a bimonthly book review column there and my column ran for roughly 2 years. It was a lot of fun, but the reading for the column became increasingly too much for me to handle given the other things I am working on.

I am grateful to Edmund Schubert for giving me the opportunity to write a science fiction book review column. It was a good experience and I hope that readers found the reviews useful.

I will almost certainly continue to review an occasional book here on the blog, but I think I am done with formal book reviews for the duration.

Thoughts on A Nice Little Place on the North Side by George F. Will

I enjoyed George F. Will’s Men at Work when I read it a few years back, so I was excited to see his new book on baseball, entitled, A Nice Little Place on the North Side: Wrigley Field at One Hundred. I finished the book this morning.

A Nice Little Place on the North Side by George F. Will

The book delighted me!

I describe this latest piece by Will as a book about the architecture of baseball, a theme he touches on from the very first quote in the book. What I mean by architecture is not the buildings or stadiums in which the game is played, but the superstructure of the game itself, the supporting components, in the context of the Chicago Cubs. The biggest of these supporting components is, of course, the fans themselves. The stadium is part of it, too, but there is much more. Concessions, radio, television, the lights in the stadium, everything that affects the game, but is not really the game itself.

The book contains the story of the Chicago Cubs, their triumphs (few) and struggles (many) over the last century. But it also wanders of the path to explore wonderful little trails often obscured by the game itself: for instance, the relationship between beer consumption and baseball.

Within the pages, Will provides plenty of humor, much of it at the Cubs expense (“Most teams call an 0-30 record terrible. The Cubs call it April.”), but without malice. Instead, he is attempting to communicate the frustration that generations of Cubs fans have experienced in their unfulfilled hopes of a world championship.

The book is much less about the action of the game of baseball and much more about what makes it the sport that it is, and has been, for over 150 years.  It is a delightful read and one of the best baseball books that I’ve come across, accessible to the casual fan and the true fanatic alike.

Long Books

I have somehow gotten into a cycle of reading particularly long books. I like long books. There is something particularly exciting about starting a book that seems almost endless, knowing that the pleasure of the book won’t be over in a day or two. There are, however, two downsides to long books:

  1. Reading one long book means I am forgoing the opportunity of reading two or three shorter books.
  2. If the long book is particularly good, the ending almost always strikes a bittersweet note with me.

The latter is true of the long book that I am about to finish today, George Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow. While not by any means the longest book I’ve read, it is still a long book by most standards. (It’s over 41 hours on Audible.) As I approach the end of Washington’s days, I look back to a couple of weeks ago when Washington was a young boy and wonder, where did the time go? I spend the last few weeks getting a very close picture of George Washington, and while there is always satisfaction in finishing a good book, I’m sad to say goodbye.

Looking through the list of books that I’ve read, I think the longest one is Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 by Edwin G. Burroughs, which I read back in 2006. The books from Will Durant’s Story of Civilization are also quite long, but the longest of these, The Age of Faith, I have yet to read.

Stephen King has written a few long books. The Stand is probably his longest, followed closely by It, the latter of which is my all-time favorite book at the moment.

In addition to being in a cycle of long books, I am in a cycle of nonfiction. Perhaps the two tend to go hand-in-hand. I used to get a fairly good balance between fiction and nonfiction books each year, back when I made an effort to do so. These days, I typically read whatever I feel like reading at the moment, and don’t force things on myself just because I think I’ve read too much fiction or nonfiction of late. The last three books I’ve read have been nonfiction, and I suspect that trend will continue for a while.

Having re-read John Adams by David McCullough recently, and followed that up with George Washington: A Life, I find myself once again enamored with the early history of the United States. I’ve always had a fascination for this time period. I don’t why others derive a fascination with the American Revolution (or if they hold such a fascination at all), but I can trace my fascination back to my 5th grade class in Warwick, Rhode Island. Learning about the American Revolution while living in New England, where the revolution started and where much of it took place, made an enormous impression upon me.

While I am very close to finishing up the Washington biography, I don’t want to lose the pleasure that I’ve been taking from immersing myself in that period of American history. Since I’ve read a biography of Washington and Adams, the next logical subject is Thomas Jefferson. Back in 2004, I read Thomas Jefferson: A Life by Willard Sterne Randall, and read at least part of it while on the campus of the college of William and Mary. I think I’m ready for some stronger stuff, and I’m leaning towards reading Dumas Malone’s 6-volume Pulitzer prize winning biography of Jefferson, written between 1948 and 1981. I already have the first volume, Jefferson the Virginian all queued up and ready to go.

However, in order to give myself a little breath and change of pace, I may slip in one lighter book before starting on the Jefferson biography, Bill Bryson’s The Lost Continent: Travels in Small Town America. Because the heavy stuff, as good as it is, can weigh you down.

I imagine that, at some point later this year, my heart will start to yearn for fiction again, and at that point, I’ll set aside the nonfiction. But for now, I’m having too much fun.

Read a Short Story Today

Twenty years ago, it seemed that the number of outlets producing good short science fiction, fantasy, and horror were few and far between. Today it is thriving. With attention spans growing shorter, short stories are the perfect ingredient for readers who want to fill those shrinking slots of time. And so, as a reminder, here are a baker’s dozen of great outlets for outstanding stories.

Happy reading!