What I read in 2003

What I read in 2003

This is a mostly complete list of the books I read in 2003. I compiled this list at the end of the year from my Amazon purchases, things I mentioned in my journal, and by going around the house and looking at the books on the shelf and floors. It might not be complete, and it doesn’t include travel books or anything that I started to read and didn’t finish, or books I only browsed. Most of these reviews are fairly positive because I have a tendency to quickly abandon books I don’t like.

The list is in no particular order. Links go to Amazon pages for the books, when available.

An Act of Contrition by E. Greenwood

A friend of mine wrote this book under a pseudonym, and I was glad to finally get a copy after all of the trouble she had with her Print on Demand publisher. It’s full of solid writing about personal experiences, and pretty dark stuff.

B-52 Stratofortress: Boeing’s Cold War Warrior by Robert F. Dorr

I’m glad I found a copy of this out-of-print UK book, because it’s absolutely the best book on the B-52 I’ve ever seen. There’s a model-by-model breakdown, excellent coverage of the initial prototypes, and many, many photos. All of the attention to detail, like the appendix that details where every B-52 has ever been, is incredible.

Cloud Dancing: Your Introduction to Gliding and Motorless Flight by Robert F. Whelan

This is a well thought-out book about gliding that is more in the form of long essays, telling you not only how flight works, but also what the culture and color and feeling is like by example. You should read it from start to finish, but it does have some figures and reference material too. It’s very dense and contains a lot of information and inspiration for only $14.95.

Dirty Little Secrets of World War II : Military Information No One Told You by James F. Dunnigan and Albert A. Nofi

This book was nowhere near as good as their similar title about Vietnam, which is incredible and I could probably randomly read it for months on end. But it’s still not bad; it contains a lot of random trivia and factoids about the war, and works best if you open to any old page and start reading.

Fargo Rock City: A Heavy Metal Odyssey in Rural North Dakota by Chuck Klosterman

Julie told me to check this out when I was thinking of writing a heavy metal-based book. I bought it, but thought it would be a fiction story about some dudes that listened to a lot of metal, set in the 1980s or something. So I was slightly bummed to find that this is actually a book of critical essays and discussion of the heavy metal period. Klosterman is a good writer, very funny and can capture the moment very well, which made me really like the book, even though our music tastes did not entirely overlap. He absolutely loved Poison; me and my friends absolutely loved to make fun of people who liked Poison. But I agree with a lot of what he has to say as a near-past anthropologist, and I look forward to checking out his other work.

The Joy of Soaring: A Training Manual by Carle Conway

This oversized book is pretty much the bible of glider flight, and has been around for ages. The large-format photos are great, and there’s excellent advice and terminology to be found. It’s almost more of a history of soaring since the end of World War II, so things might be dated, but it’s still worth reading. It’s been out of print for a while, but if you can hunt down a good used copy on Amazon, it’s worth it.

Kingdom of Fear by Hunter S. Thompson

Here’s more good work from the Doctor of Journalism. This book is essentially a memoir, telling about his run-ins with the law and the establishment. But the stuff that I enjoyed the most is when he goes off-tangent and gets in a long, fueled run about some crazy encounter that builds up like an old-fashioned story on methamphetamine. Although I liked his books of letters, it was good to get a “real” book from Thompson to enjoy.

On Thermonuclear War by Herman Kahn

This book is impossible to find, and more impossible to read. It’s a text that came out of the Rand Corporation think-tank back in the early 60s, and was one of the first to coin terms like Massive Retaliation, Mutually Assured Destruction, and Nuclear Winter. This book is dated enough to suggest that the world could survive an all-out nuclear war, but it doesn’t advocate it, either. If you’re ever at my house, ask to see my copy, but don’t expect to find one at your local Borders.

Satanic Panic: The Creation of a Contemporary Legend by Jeffrey S. Victor

Remember when Geraldo said that a million Satanists were in America, and every other day care center in California was getting shut down because the owners were into black magic, based on witness testimony from little kids? This book talks about the modern “witch trials” having to do with cult crime in the 1980s, and largely talks about urban legends from a sociological point of view. Of great interest is when he debunks and documents a rumor about “some witches” who want to “kidnap” a “blonde girl”. Hey wait, didn’t my cousin’s friend’s brother tell me about that?

The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder

I was an avid reader of alt.folklore.computers for years, and I love a good story about old technology. This book, like Steven Levy’s Hackers, describes the beginning of Data General, a once-great computer giant that has since been devastated and all but forgotten. I enjoyed reading stories of people designing and debugging hardware and software for these “old iron” machines. Great stuff – I’d love to read every similar book I could find in this genre.

The Rammed Earth House (Real Goods Independent Living Book)

Here’s another pretty house-building book to add to my collection and further aggravate me that I can’t start any sooner on constructing some shelter. I thought this book would be more about underground stuff, but it covers mesa-type buildings built with molds and pounded earth, in more clay-centric soils. That’s interesting and all, but if I went through all the damn time of setting up those forms, I’d just shoot some concrete in there and call it a day. This was a good book, but not as compelling of a construction type.

Ultralight Airmanship: How to Master the Air in an Ultralight by Jack Lambie

This trade paperback book contains a lot of drawings and diagrams on ultralight flight, which is good. It covers mostly flight concepts, like simple navigation, cloud soaring, cross-country flight, and emergency procedures. I would have appreciated more technical information about flying hardware, but that’s something that advances so fast, this 2001 revised edition would probably be out-of-date already. Overall, a good book to read cover-to-cover, but even better to browse randomly and read over and over.

Veil: The Secret Wars of the CIA 1981-1987 by Bob Woodward

This is a well-written history of the CIA that covers some of the details you won’t get from their web site, but isn’t a total X-Files conspiracy spin, either. Most of this book deals with Iran-Contra, and allegedly Woodward got a “deathbed confession” from William Casey. which his wife disputes. Still, interesting stuff, and essential reading if you are researching The Agency.

Tell Me A Story About The Devil: Selected Journals, 1997-1999 by Jon Konrath

Hey, that’s me! I published this book of my old journals at the beginning of the year, and ended up re-reading them again. I like that after walking away from this writing for several years, I came back to it and it still felt very fresh. I hope all of my writing has this quality in the future.

Pandora’s Keepers by Brian VanDeMark

Here’s a book very similar to Richard Rhodes’ The Making of the Atomic Bomb. How similar? Turns out parts of it were a word-for-word copy! VanDeMark got raked over the coals after plagiarism claims were made and proven, and this title never made it to the bookstores, although review copies did go out, and a later, revised paperback edition was promised. I got a copy from Marie (who works at Little Brown) and it wasn’t a bad read, although it seemed fairly similar to the Rhodes book. It was like watching a special on the Manhattan Project on PBS, then watching another one on the History Channel; there were a few points that varied, but they were basically similar. The story about the book’s demise is probably more interesting.

Jarhead by Anthony Swofford

This book was a pleasant surprise. Swofford didn’t write a gung-ho military memoir about how he kicked some ass and did some pushups. Instead, this is more of an essay on the person behind the Marine: how they grew up, how they got talked into enlisting, what defect or dream made them volunteer for the most physically demanding branch of the armed forces. He does talk about his service as a sniper during Desert Shield and Storm, but his chapters have more detail about how his parents didn’t want to enlist, how his drill instructor was physically abusive, how his comrades watch war movies like hard-core pornography. This is more of a coming-of-age or memoir than it is a war story, but the result turns out to be a very compelling book.

I, Robot by Issac Asimov

I haven’t read this classic Asimov since high school, and when I was contemplating some sci-fi writing this summer, I thought it would be good to get back to basics. I’m surprised I remembered as much of this as I did. This book contains a bunch of short stories originally published in pulp magazines, mostly detailing Asimov’s three laws of robotics, and also covering other “robot ethics” issues. The stories seem dated and always make me think of old Twilight Zone robots, but it was still a good read.

The Caves of Steel by Issac Asimov

After reading I, Robot, I had to continue with Asimov’s stuff by cracking into his famous robot trilogy with this first book. It depicts a futuristic, underground world where robots aren’t trusted and human settlers on outer worlds are even less revered. A police detective must investigate a murder and is assigned a robotic partner that is so human-like, he’s virtually undetectable as a machine. This is an excellent mystery/spy novel, with some noteworthy yet somewhat dated descriptions of a future Earth that has grown too big for its own good. I especially liked the descriptions of a massively multiplied New York in the future, seeing as I live in a pretty crowded version of it myself.

The Naked Sun by Issac Asimov

The next murder-mystery book in Asimov’s robot series takes place in a distant world where detective Elijah Bailey suddenly can’t deal with the open space after being cooped up underground in New York for so long. While Earth people are smashed into small spaces underground by the millions, Solarians live on giant farms in the open, and seldom see each other except by projection. Taking the two extremes and playing them off of each other sets up good tension in this straightforward crime thriller wrapped in a heavy layer of solid scifi technology.

In the Company of Heroes by Michael J. Durant

Durant is the Blackhawk pilot in the movie and book Black Hawk Down that survived a chopper crash and then was captured as a POW by the Somalis and endured a broken back and compound fracture in the leg with almost no medical treatment until freed from the Somalis several weeks later. His story is moving and much more personal than the aforementioned book, but what really makes this a good read is all of his personal history, and how he got started as an Army aviator and graduated to flying top-secret covert ops for the Night Stalker squadron. It’s a very motivational read, and also one of the more personal stories of the Somalian conflict.

Black Hawk Down by Mark Bowden

If you liked the movie version of this, it’s worth checking out the book. Bowden does an excellent job of reconstructing this bloody battle in Somalia from eyewitness accounts and official reports, probably detailing it far more than any other combat event in history. Heavily footnoted and researched, it contains great details from the troops, and is even more energetic than the film.

Somalia on $5 a Day by Martin Stanton

Unlike Black Hawk Down, this book talks about the occupational duties of the US Army in Somalia, largely detailing the day-to-day running of a base abroad. It talks about various efforts to clean up the country, and covers the nation building and famine relief in a personal and sometimes humorous tone. It’s an excellent look at Army life, showing that sometimes the GI Joe stuff takes a back seat to the betterment of our fellow man. I’d highly recommend this book if you think the Army is nothing more than shooting guns and killing people.

War in the Pacific by Jerome T. Hagen

I bought this book when I met General Hagen at the USS Arizona memorial, and he’s a great guy. The book is a series of articles he wrote for a local newspaper about the history of the war with Japan, going back to the 19th century and continuing through World War II. Hagen, a Vietnam Vet and professor at Hawaii Pacific University, manages to capture the personal aspects of battles. This isn’t a good start-to-finish history, but the fact that it contains a lot of background material on Japan and keeps a naval focus makes it very noteworthy.

Skunk Works by Ben Rich

Rich wrote a very detailed look at the history of Lockheed’s famous secret aircraft factory; so secret, that the government wouldn’t let him publish part of it for several years. This former Skunk Works chief tells all about planes like the F-117 stealth fighter and SR-71 Blackbird, and some of Lockheed’s failures, like a giant hydrogen-powered plane that never happened. He tells the tales of what it was like the work in a top-notch organization where the engineers came right down to the production floor and worked with the builders to tweak out the best airplanes ever made, and he adds in lots of information about old secret missions, like all of those U-2 flights over Russia. This book is a must-read for airplane and aviation geeks.

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind by Chuck Barris

I didn’t see this movie, but I liked the premise to the book. Barris claims in here that he was a CIA spy while he worked on many famous TV game shows. It’s debatable whether this happened or he really used this fiction as a strange metaphor for the frustrations of his life, but I like the idea that he did and I wish I could write a book like that, too. He also writes with this seventies LA grit, like Charles Bukowski, that I enjoyed. Good stuff.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson

When I’m jonesing to go to Vegas and I want an all-out manic burn through craziness, I reread this book. And every time, I realize that it’s probably one of my favorite books of all time. I pretty much have it memorized by now, but it’s still worth it to tear though it once a year or so. This is a classic!

Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson

Green Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson

Blue Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson

This trilogy of hard science talks about the colonization and eventual terraforming of Mars over the period of a few hundred years, and is the perfect read for those who remember going through the slightly hokey old Bradbury book about Mars. Every detail is covered, from politics to geology to technology to interpersonal relationships. The first book (“Red…”) starts with primitive colonization by the first hundred settlers, and deals more with technical issues, exploration, and the initial political schism of the people who want to preserve Mars and those who want to re-climate it to be more suitable for Earth dwellers. As the other books progress, Mars fights with Earth to gain its own political independence, as the Earth collapses under its own massive population. The trilogy follows several of the original colonists, then covers their children and grandchildren as the population grows. If you’re into scifi or space travel, these are excellent books, and I enjoyed them. The only drawback is that they are incredibly dense, sometimes going off on major technical tangents, and there’s a few thousand pages of reading, so budget a lot of time for these ones.

The Runner Up by John Sheppard

This book is a new concept compared to Sheppard’s usual fiction, in that it’s a short book, almost like a long zine that you can buy for cheap and read in one pass. I read this during the New York blackout, and it hit the spot because it immersed me in another world, of a Navy dropout at the end of his rope, drinking mouthwash for alcohol and trying to think back as to what went wrong. It’s like a good short story, but long enough that you get some detail and depth. I also like how he tied it into his book Small Town Punk, but also described another side of the Sarasota world. This is great stuff and well worth the sub-$10 price.

Small Town Punk by John Sheppard

This was a second read for me of my friend John’s excellent book, and it stood up well; I even found some details I missed the first time. I’ll paste my Amazon review here:

Did every town have a punk rock Pizza Hut? I know mine did, and when I read John Sheppard’s book, I realized it wasn’t an anomaly. This tale of a Reaganism-infected Florida and the lack of a punk scene features a band of outcasts that anyone with some Black Flag or Dead Kennedys in their record collection could identify with. But the book isn’t really a punk rock anthem as much as it is a tale of small town boredom and the desire to get the hell out and do something other than mow lawns and play football and go to church. There’s a lot of great humor in the situations these characters go through, but the authentic details of this era sold me on the story. This is a great book to read if you’re an old-school punk, a recovered small-town escapee, or just anyone who appreciates a great story.

You really, really need to check this book out. Go to John’s homepage and you can download the whole thing as a PDF if you can’t afford one.

Meat is Murder by Joe Pernice

This small-format book is more of a short story, and is meant to be themed around the same album by The Smiths. Larry Falli sent it to me because it was a lot like Small Town Punk, and he’s right. It’s about a kid in high school that wants to be in a rock band but is stuck practicing bass through his sister’s jambox and listening to The Smiths obsessively. He’s in love with a girl in his study hall but too nervous to talk to her. The story starts and stops abruptly, but there’s still a lot of detail. I wish he would actually write a whole full-sized book based on these characters, because 100 small pages weren’t enough.

Soft! – Rupert Thomson

Thomson usually writes these borderline gothic tales, so it was a real change to see a book set in modern London that more or less had to do with the evils of advertising than anything else. A soft drink company decides to subliminally hypnotize a group of people who respond to an ad for a sleep study clinic and make them the perfect customers for their new drink, with disastrous results. It’s more of a thriller than anything else, with a few intertwined stories that pull you through fast and keep the pages turning. Good stuff, even if it does make me thirsty for orange soda.

A Stranger in this World – Kevin Canty

I don’t always go for the Raymond Carver-esque collections of short stories, but for some reason picked this up years ago, and have enjoyed re-reading it. I even met Canty back in Seattle, and he was a pretty nice guy and gave me a lot of encouragement to keep writing. The stories contained in this book are very memorable and have a lot of “hooks” in them, even if they are sparsely written. It’s good stuff – I hope he comes out with more book-length stuff, or maybe another collection someday.

Ghost Rider – Neil Peart

Neil Peart, the drummer of prog-rock band Rush, lost both his wife (to cancer) and his daughter (to a freak car accident) in a year, and was pretty much ready to hang it up. Instead, he loaded up his BMW cruising motorcycle and set off on a giant trip alone, to think through everything and try to heal. His solo mission headed across Canada, into Alaska, down the west coast into Mexico, across the US, and more. I was more interested in the travelogue than the healing part of the book, but both themes are there. I am a huge fan of Rush, but I found myself much more interested in the Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance sort of essays about where he was going and what he saw. He’s more about voyaging than travel, and his essays show more interest in things like Jack London’s writing on the territory and what nature exists in the desert of the southwest than what foodie food is available or what Four Seasons hotel is best. Neil’s a great writer, and the only problem with this book was that it made me want to quit my job, buy a bike, and hit the road.

Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain

This was a reread, but a very enjoyable one. Most people remember Bourdain’s big book as the “don’t eat fish on Monday” tell-all, but there’s much more to the story than that. He describes well the back line of the kitchen, the secret society of the low-life cooks and chefs and busboys that nobody sees, the misfits that could never work a straight job but manage to kick ass at a prep table, even while loaded or hung over. There’s a whole mafia-like hierarchical organization behind the double doors of an eatery, and his portrayal of this life is excellent. He also goes back to his childhood, why he likes good food, and how he burned out in college and got into the chef’s life. The writing shows he’s a big fan of Hunter S. Thompson, and shares some of that manic enthusiasm that made this an excellent read for me.

Quiet Days in Clichy – Henry Miller

A short book reading more like a couple of short stories mashed together, this writing took place back when Miller was in Paris and was living the bohemian life that eventually unwound into his more famous Tropic of Cancer. However, it was edited together when he was in Big Sur, so it reads closer to Tropic of Capricorn‘s style. I’m a bigger fan of the latter than the former, so this is a good, quick escape into his world of screwing random women and living hand-to-mouth with no money. I got through it fast and it made me want to dive back into ‘Capricorn, and move away somewhere and starve a bit so I could get back to work.

Women by Charles Bukowski

Bukowski’s the classic. This and Post Office are the two books I read any time I’m stuck on writing and need to see how a master takes their real life and captures it on the page.

(that diary of the doctor in the civil war)

High Fidelity by Nick Hornby

Great book, great movie, great guy if you ever get a chance to meet him. I re-read this to give myself a kick in the ass to get some of my own writing done. It worked.

The Comedy Writer by Peter Farrelly

I (re)read this while I was sitting on jury duty, and it worked well in killing the time. This book is pretty underrated, probably because of Farrelly’s movie career. It’s a great little story, with some really funny scenes in it, and a couple of hooks that keep you going. What’s bad about it is that almost every secondary character is either very believable or very lovable, but you wonder why you are supposed to like the schmuck of a main character that doesn’t really have a good motivation or anything. The book reminds me a lot of the movie Swingers, which I love, so it made for a good read despite its roughness.

Super Flat Times by Matthew Derby

It’s hard to explain this newcomer’s first book except that it reminded me of Mark Leyner: the Next Generation, and I mean that in the good way. It’s a collection of bizarre short stories in the future that juxtapose strange images with a certain blended jumble that really works. I can’t explain it, so go to superflattimes.com and experience it there. This is probably my year’s best fiction from a new author.

Baghdad Without a Map by Tony Horwitz

What an excellent travel book! Tony Horwitz describes his travels in the Middle East in a series of essays that almost made me want to get a passport and head off to the land of Islam, just to get into some of the same fucked-up situations he saw. He got whisked around by Quadaffi’s PR team in Libya, who promised to bring his junket to some neato factory, only to get lost or hold them in the middle of nowhere forever. He saw battles of the Iran-Iraq war and got to see Baghdad before Desert Storm, filled with giant murals of Hussein, eight to an intersection. From Egypt to Israel, he tried to get around any state censorship and talk to actual people about the conditions of these strange lands, and he did an excellent job of capturing everything. Not only was this excellent journalism, but his humor and wit make this a must-read.

Kiss: Behind the Mask by David Leaf and Ken Sharp

I’ve read too many official and unofficial biographies of Kiss, and this is no exception. This tome consists of a book written by David Leaf back in the day (’78 or so, I think) that got shelved without publication for whatever reason, plus a new book by Ken Sharp that describes the band history and walks through each and every album and song they released, with comments from every band member. There are a ton of new photos, and this book seems to go behind the kayfabe and party line to tell differing opinions (instead of the sometimes revisionist Gene Simmons story.) This book is probably essential to the Kiss fan, interesting to the general music fan, and otherwise passable, except for maybe a flip through the pictures. I’m surprised I got through all 400-some pages, but I did like some of the details about the old recording sessions and the genesis of the band.

The Future of War by George & Meredith Friedman

If you were ever curious to learn about the history and theory of warfare, this is the first book you should read. It covers in great detail how various types of military might and power were formed, and how they became obsolete with the advent of newer weapons. This sounds like a simple premise, but it’s amazing how much detail and theory can be covered when you start talking about the advent of mechanized infantry, or how the ratio of weight to speed of armored vehicles makes them obsolete over time. The predictions about future war are mixed, because things like smart munitions are in the spotlight now, as they predicted, but other thoughts from this 1991 book are shaky. I’d highly recommend this to anyone interested in military systems, but I’d also tell anyone who is a pacifist or against war to read this to understand why things happen the way that they do.


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