Recommended Reading

I've always been a voracious reader. These days much of my reading time comes between takeoff and landing, when there isn't a whole lot else to do. Which gives me a chance to absorb a lot of words in a lot of different genres. (I refuse to work on airplanes.)

At the suggestion of a couple of colleagues, I've put together a selection of books I found particularly memorable. As a good technologist, I've divided them into neat categories:

* History & Biography * Historical Fiction * Travelogues
* Science Fiction * Film Inspirations * Mysteries

History & Biography

* The Fatal Shore by Robert Hughes: Once I decided to visit Australia on my first real organized vacation, I began reading everything I could on the subject. One of the travel guides referred me to The Fatal Shore, a remarkable and shocking account of the convict settlement of the country. I guess I must have thought Australia's history was much like that of America; this book showed me just how wrong I was. With its detail of the barbarism of 18th century British penal philosophy and hardships that made those of American colonists seem a picnic it made a profound impression on me, not just regarding Australia and its treatment of its prisoner and aboriginal population but of our own history and civilization. A devastating work, and one that made me think hard about canceling my trip. Fortunately, other books helped to balance Australia's early history with a more recent (and upbeat) perspective.
* A Man Called Intrepid by William Stevenson: As I've written elsewhere, James Bond and the spy mania of the 60s had a big impact on my adolescence. Of course, further reading revealed that spycraft wasn't quite as glamorous as Ian Fleming described. The more I read, the harder it became to reconcile the widely divergent descriptions of Fleming, John LeCarre, Adam Hall (The Quiller Memorandum) and so many others. It wasn't until shortly after I graduated from college that I had my first literary exposure to the real thing: William Stevenson's account of World War II British spymaster Sir William Stephenson (himself a Canadian and no relation to his biographer). The truth was far more dramatic than any fiction: the British capture of a German Enigma cypher machine at the start of the war; the Baker Street Club's collection of mathematicians and crossword puzzle wizards working away at decrypting High Command orders; the determination to hide the secret of Enigma at all costs, including permitting the firestorm of Coventry and the shooting down of a plane carrying actor Leslie Howard; FDR's covert and later overt support for the British effort; the real story behind the chase and sinking of the battleship Bismarck; J. Edgar Hoover's determination to break the cooperation between British and American spy agencies. (Fleming himself makes an appearance in the tale; an intelligence agent himself during the war, he proved to have too much imagination to be terribly good as an operational agent.) The information on Stephenson and the Enigma, finally declassified in the 70s, shows just how little we are sometimes allowed to know of our own history.
* Blind Man's Bluff by Sherry Sontag, Christopher Drew & Annette Lawrence Drew: On occasion, truth is not only stranger than fiction but far more dramatic. Blind Man's Bluff is a first rate example. It tells the tale of American submarines and their crews and their role as the ultimate Cold Warriors, carrying out espionage missions so delicate and hazardous that no one would dare make them up. This is even a better story than Intrepid's exploits, not least because it fills in the details of events I saw unfold in my daily paper. Howard Hughes' little CIA projects; Ronald Reagan's saber rattling threatening to start the war he hoped to avert; Aldritch Ames and others selling out their country for a few bucks; plus enough stoicism and heroism to fill five other books. The postscript, wherein the authors talk of meeting submariners who could never tell their families of their exploits, is worth the price of admission all by itself. Wonderful drama and, one suspects, every word of it true.
* Gracie: A Love Story by George Burns: Lest you believe me a highbrow snob, I should confess that I'm as starstruck as most. And seven years in L.A. and regular weekend screenings at the Director's Guild did nothing to reduce my fascination with movies and actors. So in among my more intellectual readings you'll find the odd celebrity bio. This one is special: George Burns' biography of his wife and partner, Gracie Allen, tells of their early years in vaudeville (both individually and collectively), their work in radio and early television and their life together. As you might expect, Burns tells their story with wit, humor, affection, humility and finally grief at losing her much too soon. An unabashedly sentimental book, which is a large part of its charm.
* Genius by James Gleick : Like most Americans, I first encountered Richard Feynman during the investigation of the Challenger explosion, where he turned the administration's attempt at a whitewash upside down and lay the blame where it belonged: on bureaucrats who were determined to believe that things were fine no matter what the evidence. I later read his own semi-autobiography, Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman and learned about his drumming, his safecracking and his attitude toward life and science. But it wasn't until I picked up James Gleick's biography of Feynman that I realized the towering intellect of the man and his equally towering achievements. The bright, creative clown of Feynman's own books becomes in Gleick's work perhaps the most brilliant mind of our age. Gleick attempts and frequently succeeds at making the esoterica of advanced physics comprehensible even to those of us who gave up on the subject freshman year. In the process he reveals Feynman and scientists in general not just as plodding experimenters but as artists whose flashes of insight illuminate the universe. If most people are less interesting than they believe, Gleick demonstrates that Feynman was far more so, in many different ways and on so many different levels.

Historical Fiction

* Beat To Quarters by C.S. Forester: It wasn't an interest in sailing ships or the Napoleonic Wars or history that got me reading the Horatio Hornblower novels; it was an offhand comment in a book about Star Trek. The author claimed that James Kirk was influenced by two earlier characters: Captain J.J. Adams from the classic SF movie Forbidden Planet; and Forester's Captain Hornblower, hero of a dozen books and a film with Gregory Peck at his most dashing. The books are great fun, bringing to life a period of history about which I knew very little. They also gave me an appreciation for the difficulties and deprivation of those days (I think flying coach is painful!) and the source of Britain's rather limited culinary preferences: never eat anything that can't last for six months without refrigeration!
* Shogun by James Clavell: After four trips to Japan two things were obvious: that Japanese are not like Americans and that they don't want to be. The differences were all over, some obvious and many more subtle. But the why of it didn't begin to make sense until I started reading Shogun. It's an exciting and fantastic story of first contact between alien races. (The clash between Japan and England in 1600 is as cataclysmic an encounter as anything a science fiction writer could imagine.) And entertaining as it was, Shogun was also invaluable to my understanding of Japanese history and culture. Suddenly Japan made a lot more sense. I have since read the rest of Clavell's work, including King Rat, a fictional account of his harrowing experiences in Singapore's Changi Prison during World War II.
* A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute: A Town Like Alice is both wonderful and strange. It's strange because even after reading it and contemplating it, I still can't exactly explain what the book is about. The story, told part in flashback and part in present day, concerns an English woman and an Australian man who meet in dire circumstances during the Japanese occupation of the Malay Peninsula during WWII. And it follows them as they meet, fall in love and try to build lives together in postwar small town Australia. But it's as much about a time and a place as it is about its characters, as much about culture and archetype as about individuals. Which is ultimately what makes it more than a tale of wartorn lovers and more about independence and determination and will and, yes, love. Not just between the protagonists but in the unexpressed and unrequited love of the tale's narrator for a quiet, unassuming and yet remarkable woman.
(The Alice of the title is Alice Springs, the largest city in the central Australian desert. But the story doesn't take place in Alice; it takes place in a barely-there town a thousand miles away in Queensland that would kill to be like Alice. Which is funny in a way, since Alice itself wasn't really much of a town itself. Today, it's a small city of 25,000 or so whose income comes largely from tourism associated with its namesake: a book about someplace completely different half a continent away.)
* Sharpe's Rifles by Bernard Cornwell: What Forester's Hornblower is to the British Navy, Cornwell's Richard Sharpe is to the foot soldier. Around Sharpe, a common soldier elevated to an officer's rank by a single act of heroism, Cornwell has recreated the horror, the fortitude, the nobility and the insanity of war. We slog along with Sharpe and his men through the worst and the best of the Peninsular war against Napoleon. Did men really face such carnage and deprivation? Cornwell brings it all to the page and makes it all so real and so immediate. One word of advice: begin this series with the knowledge that you won't stop until the end. And then you can spend twenty-one hours watching the fourteen amazing films made for British television. Why can't American broadcasters produce anything half so gritty, half so compelling?


* The Lost Continent by Bill Bryson: Travel guides are both the boon and bane of the traveler's existence. On the one hand, they tell you where to go and what to expect when you get there. This saves considerable time and energy when you're balancing the desire to see and do it all against limited time, funds and energy. On the other hand, they lie: they do their best to make every place sound exciting and worthwhile when in fact lots of places aren't even mildly interesting. Bill Bryson writes the kind of travel book that saves you the trouble of going yourself: he goes on adventures you wouldn't be crazy enough to try yourself (in the case of The Lost Continent, 13,000 miles by car around the U.S.), describing every funny, boring or just plain awful experience along the way. The best endorsement I can think of is to say that I'm glad that I don't take trips like this but that I'm also glad that he does. Bryson also wrote Made In America, a history of the U.S. of A. and of its many peculiar contributions to the English language.
* One For The Road by Tony Horwitz: Horwitz goes on the kind of adventures I'm glad to read about but wouldn't for a moment consider taking myself. In his book Baghdad Without A Map he describes his experiences as a journalist in the Middle East, many of which are funny to read about but must have been agonizing to experience. In One For The Road he places himself into a special kind of hell: that of a wanderer attempting to hitchhike across the vastness of Australia. Horwitz finds humor in much of what he encounters on his two thousand mile pilgrimage, including the locals' tendency to describe distances in terms of the beer you'll consume in getting there. ("It's a case to the next stop and just a sixpack to the one after.") I can't imagine trying to hitchhike such vast distances in a more populous place like America, much less Australia. But I can't help but be impressed by Horwitz's enthusiasm and sense of adventure at the same time that I have severe doubts about his sanity. It's some consolation that by the end of his adventure, Horwitz seems to be having the same doubts.
* Learning To Bow by Bruce Feiler: If my understanding (such as it is) of Japanese history and culture began with James Clavell, it achieved a sort of epiphany after reading this book. Feiler writes of his experiences as a teacher of English in a Japanese high school. These experiences run the range from comic to merely frustrating to tragic. While doing his best to avoid making value judgements on what he encounters, Feiler highlights the strengths and weaknesses of Japanese education, both its stability and order and the tensions that threaten to tear it apart. After so many accounts in the 80s and early 90s of the Japanese industrial miracle and its clear dominance of the world's economy, it is interesting to read a contrary view. Or, if not quite contrary, one that raises some questions about the enduring nature of that success and the price Japan paid to achieve it. Less than a decade after the book's publication, those questions don't seem nearly so shocking.
* Full Circle by Luis Sepúlveda: One of the signs that I'm getting older is that I no longer look for magic in everyday life. Things don't work out just because they're supposed to; the dramatically satisfying conclusion rarely comes to pass; and the cavalry arriving just in time to save the day occurs only in old movies and new television programs. But I guess magic is where you find it. And Luis Sepúlveda finds it all around him. Part travelogue through South America, part personal history (with some unpleasant and downright chilling moments tossed off with Latin charm), part Ripley's Believe It Or Not, this slim volume took me away to a fantastic place that my rational self refuses to believe could exist. Which makes me all the more anxious as I count the days until my first visit to Sepúlveda's enchanted land.
(The book's translator deserves credit as well; somehow he has managed to create a readable English work while preserving the poetry and music of the Spanish original. Perhaps not as remarkable as translating Hamlet into Klingonese, but a noteworthy achievement nonetheless.)

Science Fiction

* The Door Into Summer by Robert Heinlein: I started reading science fiction at an early age. One of the first books I can recall was Have Space Suit, Will Travel, one of Heinlein's books for juveniles. (I found it in the school library. I was seven. It was about the same.) A little over a decade later I rediscovered Heinlein thanks to a roommate in college. Although I've read all of his work, a couple of titles stand out for me. Both are from his early period, before he switched to juveniles in the fifties or to much longer, more adult works from the sixties until his death in 1988. His early books are sweeter, gentler and more innocent. The Door Into Summer mixes cryogenics and time travel with a Harlequin Romance plot. It's pure joy. In the same vein is Double Star, Heinlein's version of The Prisoner Of Zenda. A tale of an actor hired to portray an indisposed politician, it's been retold time and time again in such films as Moon Over Parador and Dave. Heinlein's version has warmth, finely drawn characterizations and a reticence over more intimate details that was to disappear from his later work.
* Another Fine Myth by Robert Asprin: I've never cared much for fantasy. All those names to remember, all the alternative and frequently inconsistent physical laws, all that background to wade through before the story can make any sense. I just don't have the patience. Robert Asprin's Myth books are fantasy for people like me: they refuse to take themselves seriously! The story begins with Skeeve, a magician's apprentice, whose master conjures up a demon one day just to prove he can do it. At which point (predictably) things go horribly wrong: the magician is killed and Skeeve finds himself facing a particularly large and hungry looking demon. Who proceeds to introduce himself as Aahz (no relation), a native of a dimension called Perv. (Which makes him a Pervect, no matter what you might have heard!) It seems that demons are just visitors from other dimensions. Aahz, being stranded in Skeeve's Klah dimension with the rest of the Klahds (trust me, it gets worse), decides to team up with Skeeve and see what easy pickings are to be had. Which leads over several books into Skeeve becoming The Great Skeeve, master magicians across all known dimensions. Which is mostly a world class con job. Which... but you get the idea. The style of the books is light and funny. Of special note are the humorous or ironic quotes that lead off each chapter. Asprin has claimed that writing the quotes is the hardest part of writing the Myth books. I believe him.
* Sten by Allan Cole & Chris Bunch: Sten is the first in a series about an assassin in the service of the Eternal Emperor, a benevolent dictator over a few thousand worlds. When we first meet Sten he's just trying to survive the hellhole of an industrial world into which he was born. By the end of that book he has begun his move up the rungs of power and responsibility, which will eventually lead him to the Emperor's right hand. Which all sounds like an interstellar version of Horatio Hornblower: the highly successful career of a military man in service to his monarch. Except that Cole and Bunch have something much more insidious in mind. Nothing is as it seems, especially a ruler who has held the reins of power for longer than anyone else has lived. What is the source of his power? How does a seemingly ordinary human endure for dozens of ordinary lifetimes, avoiding not only aging and disease but the actions of those who want his rule to end? (I hope I'm not revealing too much to say that Sten's adventures take a severe but logical turn about half way through the series. In retrospect I probably should have seen it coming. But as usual with a well written story I got so wrapped up in the moment that I never thought to anticipate the authors' intentions.)
* The Sleeping Dragon by Joel Rosenberg: In my last few months at college I joined a nightly Dungeons & Dragons session. All of the participants were friends of mine from RIT's close-knit Computer Science undergrad community, so it was more social than anything else. So my attitude toward D&D was that it made a good excuse to act silly with a bunch of equally silly friends. (My character was big, overmuscled, massively imprudent and generally thick; about as opposite from the real me as I could get!) Many fantasy writers have attempted to use D&D as the basis of single books or series; the only one I read today is Rosenberg's Guardians Of The Flame, which began with The Sleeping Dragon. Rosenberg's premise was both simple and easy to do badly: imagine what would happen if a bunch of D&D players found themselves facing the real thing. But instead of filling it with endless battles and puzzles to be solved, he faces them with the real challenges of the situation: turning a barbaric and fear-ridden culture into one with a bit more justice and a bit more hope. It's a story of technology against magic, of idealists watching their ideals change as they grow older and perhaps wiser, of finding that simple solutions are rarely so simple. It's also filled with characters who think, who learn and grow with their experiences. Pretty rare for a mere fantasy story. Rosenberg has written several other fantasy series. He has also done a hard SF series about a harsh, inhospitable world called Metzada (Masada) populated by Jewish mercenaries who fight other people's battles just to keep their own world alive.

Film Inspiration

* The Princess Bride by William Goldman: I like silly. (This will not come as a shock to anyone who knows me.) When I first read The Princess Bride I felt like I had found a kindred spirit, someone who enjoyed going over the top, beyond mere humor and into the realm of the plainly ridiculous. Even more than the film the book is a celebration of the outrageous, a story within a story in which the author gleefully twists and tears apart literary conventions. It's full of exciting moments, goofy moments, macabre moments and inside jokes that go to the wall and beyond. (Like a romantic reunion scene between Wesley and Buttercup that Goldman added to the "original" book and which the descendants of the original writer ordered removed. It's only available (or not) by writing to the publisher.) For years The Princess Bride was a special treat I shared with my closest friends. Sometimes we all need to go back to the basics: impossibly good heroes, impossibly evil villains and their impossibly impossible escapes.
* Who Censored Roger Rabbit by Gary Wolf: Yes, this was the source of Roger, Jessica and Eddie Valiant. But no, it isn't the same story at all. Wolf's original novel told the story straight, or at least as straight as any tale about six foot tall rabbits and killer custard pies can be told. It's a dark combination of detective story and fantasy full of downtrodden and unlovable cartoon characters, mayhem and murder. All of the light touches of the movie are missing here, as are the cameos by Disney and Warner Brothers characters. It's a fascinating book that would have made one hell of an interesting movie. (Wolf wrote a sequel after the movie came out. It sort of tries to be a sequel to both the book and the film. What he got was an incoherent mess.)
* Fried Green Tomatoes At The Whistle Stop Cafe by Fanny Flagg: Going to see Fried Green Tomatoes was a group decision; it wasn't the kind of movie I'd have expected to like. In that I was wrong. And the book was even better. Told in a combination of newspaper clippings and straight exposition, it is an even more vivid evocation of life in a small Southern town from the early days of the century, complete with the sort of funny and sad characters every small town ought to have. Flagg, a former comedy writer and actress (she costarred in Dick Van Dyke's second and more forgettable TV series as the South's answer to Rose Marie), demonstrates a strong but light touch with her story and the people who populate it. And the device of using old articles to tell the story doesn't get in the way of the narrative. (Ms. Flagg used a similar technique in her first book, Daisy Fae & The Miracle Man, although not with the same degree of success.)
* Tales Of The City by Armisted Maupin: Tales Of The City and the books that follow the lives of the odd and wonderful residence of Barbary Lane is an interesting contradiction. Are they lightweight comic novels that happen to address a serious topic? Or are they serious works that disguise that fact with a comic sensibility? Whichever is closer to the author's intent, I found myself drawn into his fascinating collection of oddballs, misfits and the occasional well-adjusted personality. And Maupin makes it feel perfectly natural and even unremarkable when his gay characters behave in ways that are frequently more sympathetic and more honorable than many of his straight ones. I discovered Maupin's work after PBS made a miniseries from the first book. It's a shame that political concerns should prevent the rest of the series from receiving the same treatment.
* Circle Of Friends by Maeve Binchey: This is a book I picked up after seeing a trailer for the film. I'm not sure why; I don't have a lot in common with small town Irish Catholics encountering the big city of Dublin. (My course was the reverse, going from New York City to a college in the cultural backwater of Rochester.) In any event, the book surprised me. It made small town Irish life, as conservative and staid as it was in the 60s, seem a reasonable way to live, even as it was changing. Perhaps more surprising is the lack of evil in this tale: everyone is presented as true to their own upbringing and their own sense of right and wrong (as askew as they might be): there are bad actions but no genuinely bad people. And no simplistic resolutions. I admire subtlety; and Binchey's work has it in spades. Which is why I found the film something of a disappointment: in storyline and tone it's true to its source; but in pacing, in characterizations, in resolution it's far more abrupt and black-and-white. It isn't enough to make one character an embezzler as he is in the book; he also has to be an attempted rapist as well. Perhaps it is Binchey's greatest accomplishment that even the villains in her tale are comprehensible and (mostly) sympathetic.
* Shoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella: Shoeless Joe is a mystic story about baseball that became a remarkable movie called Field of Dreams. I read the book after seeing the film, noticing in the process how different two tellings of the same story could be. Like the other Kinsella works I've read since, Shoeless Joe finds magic in the mundane and poetry in the ordinary. One throwaway passage in the book had a special significance for me. Ray and J.D. Salinger visit the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown and are assisted by the curator of the facility, a man named Clifford Kachline. Reading his name brought a shock of recognition and memory of the crush I had on his daughter my freshman year in college. In a funny way Kinsella's tale of optimism and innocence reminded me of a time when I too was innocent and optimistic and believed in a kind of magic.

Take me home:

Comments to: Hank Shiffman, Mountain View, California