The Devil's Disciples

Anthony Read

2003


A history of Nazi Germany from the different perspective of the first tier of Hitler's followers, mainly focussing on Goebbels, Goering, and Himmler. That's actually a slight limitation, in that there are huge contributions from other, second-tier Nazis that remain to be explored, and that might have made this book even more distinctive. But it still manages to put a lot of detail into the personal lives and deeds of its chosen subjects which are often missed in more "standard" histories, and this sheds a lot of light onto many of their motivations and key decisions. A very useful addition to the literature.

Finished on Mon, 13 May 2019 09:24:02 -0700.   Rating 4*/5*.

Manchester's Ship Canal: Th Big Ditch

Cyril J. Wood

2005


A detailed history of the Manchester Ship Canal, lavishly illustrated from across the years.

I grew up alongside the canal, and there's plenty here I didn't know. It would have been better to have more depth in a lot of places, especially in terms of construction techniques and the history of some of the areas such as Old Quay docks in Runcorn and Dock Office in Manchester. (The latter had a mainframe computer for running the payroll, I remember.) It's a great reminder of the ways in which these huge industrial projects shaped the North-West, and I share the author's happiness that the canal system is gradually being restored and put back to work.

Finished on Sun, 28 Apr 2019 10:14:51 -0700.   Rating 4*/5*.

Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams

Matthew Walker

2017


An enthusiastic paean to sleep and all it can do for us, from the perspective of a sleep scientist. If there was ever any doubt of the benefits of sleep – and the damage done by denying oneself or others of it – then this is it.

It's a refreshingly un-preachy book, presenting both the latest science and some prescriptions for those who find sleep difficult. Along the way there are some side-swipes at those to claim to do well on only four hours a night (the science clearly says otherwise), as well as at the educational system for forcing early hours onto teenage brains working to a different rhythm. While I suspect the situation is better in the UK and Europe than in the US, there still seems to be a good argument for changes in timetabling even at university level to accommodate the physiological limitations of younger students,

Finished on Sun, 28 Apr 2019 10:10:56 -0700.   Rating 4*/5*.

Earth Abides

George R. Stewart

1949


One of the earliest examples of post-apocalyptic science fiction. It's awash with ideas and thoughtful analysis of the challenges that might face a remnant of humanity living in the wreckage of a disaster – even one that, in this case, didn't involve a war.

It's not a book that's aged well, though. Stewart isn't a natural fiction writer, and his characters never become anything more than two-dimensional stereotypes both in terms of their reactions and their relationships. In that sense it's inferior to, for example, A Canticle for Leibowitz or Damnation Alley, but enjoyable nonetheless.

Finished on Wed, 10 Apr 2019 04:05:59 -0700.   Rating 2*/5*.

The Real Heroes Of Telemark

Ray Mears

1990


A great narrative history of a minor military exploit that was nonetheless of enormous historical importance: the on-going operation to prevent the Nazis acquiring a stock of heavy water that could be used in making an atomic bomb. But the efforts and hazards dared by the men who took part in the operations are equal to those of any polar explorers, as well as any special forces.

Mears is clearly a lot more comfortable explaining the backwoodsmanship of the participants than he is with the detailed military or scientific history, but that just makes this a unique take on a theatre of war that's been under-studied.

Finished on Wed, 10 Apr 2019 03:59:21 -0700.   Rating 3*/5*.

The Shortest History of Germany

James Hawes

2017


Does exactly what the title suggests. As one might imagine it's a rapid race through a lot of history, but the key currents are clear to see: the nature of Germany changes from east to west, to the extent that the two areas remain religiously, politically, and intellectually distinct even to this day.

The effects of geography on history are made clear by the persistence of certain demarcations even when one might not imagine them. The Roman limes, the line of forts on the western edge, define a boundary based on the ease of campaigning in the countryside; there's then another Roman boundary at the Elbe, with the area between the two being the extent of Roman punitive expeditions. But these lines essentially track the borders of the future West Germany, as the Russian, American, and British armies met at the Elbe at the end of the Second World War, freezing what was a Roman boundary into 20th century geopolitics.

Finished on Wed, 10 Apr 2019 03:55:00 -0700.   Rating 4*/5*.

The Ethical Carnivore: My Year Killing to Eat

Louise Gray


A study of meat-eating that's somewhat wider than the title might suggest. Indeed, very few mammals (although rather more fish) are actually killed by the author in the course of this book. There are several tours of slaughterhouses, a trawler voyage, some fish farming, and plenty of farm visits to see how the animals are kept and killed.

This book is probably best seen as following in the general tradition of animal welfare, with extensive side journeys into climate change and the human population explosion. Its central message – eat less meat that's been better raised – is far more derived from these sources than from anything to do with killing the animals yourself.

Finished on Fri, 08 Mar 2019 07:35:00 -0800.   Rating 2*/5*.

Strategy

B.H. Liddell Hart

1941


A classic book on strategy. While its main message can be stated in one sentence – always approach your goal indirectly – it's a combination of historical military analysis and a distillation of key ideas that can be applied both militarily and beyond. The discussion of First World War strategy is especially strong; the discussion of Hitler's strategy is interesting because it was written while the issue was still in doubt, and so can be criticised for its unreality (making a rational argument to Hitler's henchmen against their achieving final victory), but at least was not shy of making definite and supported suggestions.

I can't recommend this edition of the book, however. The typography and quality of the layout are terrible.

Finished on Wed, 20 Feb 2019 15:04:35 -0800.   Rating 3*/5*.

Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals

John N. Gray

2002


Strawmen as much as straw dogs: weak portrayals of ideas that can then be more easily torn down.

I find it hard to see ow this book achieved so much praise. In part it's self-negating, a modern academic berating all the things that make his own activities possible. But many of the criticisms are also deliberate set-ups, for example telling me (a scientist) what "scientists" think (because we're all the same, you know), and using it to demolish and/or demonise our activities. I would just point out that reading commentaries about science by philosophers and historians isn't the same as practicing, and Gray might find that practitioners have a rather different outlook on their activities.

Finished on Sun, 27 Jan 2019 07:52:38 -0800.   Rating 1*/5*.

Circe

Madeline Miller

2018


The story of Circe, daughter of Helios and witch of the Odyssey, told from her perspective.

It's very much a feminist story, capturing all the incidental abuses to which women in heroic narratives are always subject. It's a pleasure to read and avoids becoming either preachy or too anachronistic: Circe feels like a classical goddess, not like an out-of-time modern. It's also clever how Miller has managed to weave together the "main" part of Circe's story from the Odyssey with the other, lesser-known elements that appear in different re-tellings, in order to make the narrative seamless across Circe's lived experience.

Finished on Sun, 27 Jan 2019 07:48:26 -0800.   Rating 5*/5*.