A Cook’s Tour – Global Adventures in Extreme Cuisines – Anthony Bourdain

Chef Bourdain travels the world looking for the “perfect meal”.

Entertaining but very varied both in quality and flavour. The trip to France with his brother seeking out their childhood haunts is heartwarming. The Vietnam stories are colourful. The Russian trip is at once terrifying and hilarious.

Not as focused as Kitchen Confidential, and Mr. Bourdain does admit that after the sucess of that book he was a man looking for a purpose, which shows. Nevertheless, the writing is humorous, tight, and pithy.

Kitchen Confidential – Anthony Bourdain

Chef Bourdain’s outrageous and allegedly accurate memoir of a life in the kitchens of New York and environs. Sex, drugs, rock and roll, deceit, mob connections, and of course food. And almost more importantly, the mindboggling logistics of food, from supplier to plate.

Mr. Bourdain’s voice is irreverent, often outrageous, but always entertaining. A book to devour. At times poignant, peppered with dark humour, and often laugh out loud funny, this is a fascinating and very entertaining book.

Chickenhawk – Robert Mason

As a young Warrant Officer in the US Army, Mr. Mason spent a year flying helicopters in Vietnam. This memoir chronicles his journey from wet-behind-the-ears newbie to grizzled veteran with PTSD. The perspective is very much that of soldiers who are just doing the job, far from any decision-making. They can see the futility of their efforts, but they still go out and fly, despite their fears, facing daily the horrors of mutilation and death.

Chickenhawk is a seminal book about the Vietnam War experience, and also about flying helicopters in combat. The author uses irony and self-deprecating humour to good effect, describing in starkly clinical terms the compendium of horrors he witnessed. The feelings of helplessness and futility from flying the same missions over and over again with little effect on the war effort, while at the same time the generals and politicians spout empty words claiming success is imminent, are explored not directly, but through the naively portrayed eyes of the narrator. A fascinating read whether you are into aviation or not.

Fighter Pilot: The Memoirs Of Legendary Ace Robin Olds – Robin Olds, with Christina Olds and Ed Rasimus

Robin Olds was the consummate fighter pilot. Bold, brave, decisive, inspiring, and impatient with bureaucracy. His career began in World War Two, flying Lightings and Mustangs, and was capped off with a legendary tour in Vietnam, flying Phantoms.

The events recounted are historically very interesting, especially the Vietnam War narrative. Unfortunately, though, Mr. Olds and his co-authors are not very inspiring writers. It is all quite plain, gruff and direct, probably much like the man himself. There is also a lot of fighter pilot jargon that goes largely unexplained, making many passages difficult to decipher. This book could have used an editor, or a helpful collaborating ghostwriter, to make the prose and structure more interesting. It turned into a slog of a read despite content that should have been riveting.

Grunt – The Curious Science of Humans at War – Mary Roach

Exploring such varied subjects as developing crash test dummies for IED simulation, stomach upsets in a war zone, sleep deprivation, and submarine rescue, this is a fascinating and oftentimes hilarious book.

Ms. Roach’s signature dry humour is very much on display as she asks pointed questions that unravel the ostensibly serious subject matter. Interesting whether the reader is into military science or not.

Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut’s Journeys – Michael Collins

Michael Collins was Command Module Pilot during Apollo XI, the NASA mission that included the first Moon landing. He did not himself land, but kept lonely vigil in Lunar orbit as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made their famous landing. As is common with astronaut biographies concerning the early NASA era, this one also begins with an early career in the military. Mr. Collins was an accomplished test pilot, who was accepted by NASA on his second attempt, joining the third group of astronauts. He also flew on Gemini X, performing a spacewalk and perfecting docking manoeuvres.

Mr. Collins’s book stands out from other similar autobiographies I have read, in that it is written in the author’s own voice, as he explicitly states. His love for the English language, perhaps a product of rather a classical education, shines through in poetic passages, and even some poetry. This is not the voice of a clinical and technical test pilot, even though there is a fair amount of technical detail. This is the voice of a poet who lays bare his troubles, annoyances, fears and tribulations like no other astronaut I have read, elevating the text from documentary to something that seeks a deeper significance. We see the inner Collins, or at least more of the inner Collins that I really expected. Other astronauts are treated candidly, and sometimes with a brutal honesty about what the author sees as their character weaknesses. There is no bitterness in these passages, merely observations from a man who long since has gotten over the time when such concerns perhaps seemed all-encompassing.

The epilogue is particularly interesting to read today, almost fifty years after publication. Without rancour and with a great deal of patience, Mr. Collins laments the myopia of politicians, the ongoing damage to our fragile planet, and the general short-sightedness of humanity. He also takes issue with the perceived, but fictitious, conflict between resources devoted to space exploration, and spending on “problems at home”. With only a few detail changes, this chapter could have been written today, as humanity seems to have progressed no further, and such debates continue.

Factfulness – Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World–and Why Things Are Better Than You Think – Hans Rosling, with Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Rönnlund

Factfulness was written by a team of Swedish researchers at the Gapminder Foundation. Its aim is to use data to explain the world, and why most people have very skewed impressions about it. By asking targeted questions about infant mortality, education levels, disease, and so forth, the authors open up to discussions about what the world is really like, and where it is going. They also analyze and explain why our instincts often lead us in the wrong direction. A toolkit of sorts is laid out to help the reader be more “factful”.

The late Dr. Rosling first rose to fame with a Ted talk in which he challenged the preconceptions of the audience, using unambiguous and clear data presented in an engaging manner. His infectious enthusiastic manner shines through in the writing. The subject matter is ostensibly rather dry, but the authors make it fun, using interesting anecdotes from aid work around the world to raise questions. The chapters are short and punchy, ensuring the reader doesn’t lose interest.

A book which I would recommend to anyone, as everyone can use some Factfulness in their life.

Liftoff: Elon Musk and the Desperate Early Days That Launched SpaceX – Eric Berger

Given unprecedented access to the current and former employees of SpaceX, including Elon Musk, Mr. Berger of Ars Technica tells the story of the first years of SpaceX. The company was a maverick startup that few people in the industry took seriously. A team of scrappy engineers taking on seemingly impossible challenges, unhampered by the bureacratic trappings of established companies. If you needed something done, you did it. If you needed a piece of kit, you bought it. In classic Silicon Valley fashion, Elon Musk hired people he trusted to work hard and get things done, and then let them get on with it, supporting them as needed. Certainly, there were clashes, and setbacks, and mistakes, but the job did indeed get done, and how!

Even knowing much of the story beforehand, reading about the hardships of the early days was fascinating. Reading the words of those actually involved in working insane hours, overcoming monumental challenges, and suffering through long months far from home at the remote Pacific atoll of Kwajalein, makes the story come to life. I had no idea of exactly how tough conditions were, and how many hair-raising situations were dealt with. The fact that SpaceX survived those early years, and went on to become the industry leader it is today, is a testament to power of ideas, and how motivated people can make the seemingly impossible happen.

Sid Meier’s Memoir!: A Life in Computer Games – Sid Meier

Legendary computer game designer Sid Meier‘s memoir is a heartfelt love letter to a life in computer gaming. The designer of Civilization not details the trials of designing and publishing games through his multi-decade experience of the industry. More importantly, it delves deep into discussions on what is important for a game to be enjoyable. Thankfully, this is not a technical treatise delving deep into the programming. Instead, it focuses on the effects of game mechanics on the experience. Mr. Meier also widens the scope of the discussion, by sharing his thoughts on the nature of art in general.

The book is mostly chronological, with frequent flashbacks to various events of childhood and adolescence. Mr. Meier has a self-deprecating style which shows through here as it does in his games. His recipe for success seems deceptively simple. Figure out what people enjoy, and make games that are enjoyable. Several humorous anecdotes about player and playtester feedback illustrate his point.

Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? – Graham Allison

In this non-fiction treatise, Harvard international relations expert Dr. Allison analyses the brewing great power contest between the United States and China. He starts with the work of classical historian Thucydides, who argued that the Peloponnesian War in the 4th Century BC was an almost inevitable consequence of a rising power challenging the status quo embodied by a the dominating power at the time. Dr. Allison uses a variety of similar situations in history, including the lead up to World War One, as well as the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, to discuss the consequences of such conflicts, and how they can be avoided.

The book is a fascinating look into how powers may find war unavoidable, even though it is against their interests, if they do not take action to move beyond attempting to maintain the status quo. There is also an in-depth discussion about the fundamental differences between Chinese and Western culture, importantly including the concepts of governance. Unfortunately, these particularities and differences do not seem well understood in the West.

What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions – “Randall Munroe”

What If? deals with the absurd questions that Mr. Munroe receives on a section of his website, which is primarily known for hosting his webcomic XKCD. Questions include what would happen to you if you started to rise at the rate of one foot per second and what would happen if the Moon disappeared.

While the questions themselves are absurd, Mr. Munroe works through the logic and maths in a serious way, which results in some surprising insights. His trademark irony and delightfully witty foodnotes make for a very enjoyable read.

This is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor – Adam Kay

A no holds barred, brutally frank, bloody, tearful, joyous, and hilarious account of life as a junior doctor.

The events, described in short anecdotes, are often somewhat disturbing given how blindly we depend on and trust the medical profession (this very concept is also addressed and deconstructed), but I was nevertheless left impressed with the ethics and selflessness displayed even in difficult situations. While the book is uncompromisingly honest about the failings of the medical profession, it equally is a triumph; a heartfelt homage to those who toil endlessly to save and improve our lives. The understated wit is biting, and I found myself laughing out loud with some regularity. This is truly one of the funniest books that I have ever read. The descriptions of blood-spattered delivery room procedures often made me cringe, which made the laughter even more heartfelt. At the end, I felt drained of emotion, but I was smiling. Mr. Kay’s unrelenting optimism about humanity is charming, and contagious.

How To: Absurd Scientific Advice for Common Real-World Problems – Randall Munroe

How-To tackles seemingly mundane problems like “how to dig a hole”, “how to cross a river”, or how to move house”, but takes them to absurd and hilarious extremes. For example, the moving house chapter includes a calculation of how far you could fly your house if you mounted jet engines to it.

Mr. Munroe is the author of the famous webcomic XKCD, and he brings his unique perspective to this very funny book. One key aspect which makes this book transcend mere humour is that the underlying science is basically sound. While it may not be possible to deploy a field of teakettles to boil a river in order to cross it (yes, that is one of the solutions considered), the consequences of the heating are calculated and described with as much accuracy as possible.

Worms to Catch – Guy Martin

Mr. Martin’s third memoir continues to detail his doubts and tribulations over whether he should continue road racing. While he ponders that question, he manages to break the world speed record on a Wall of Death, finish the grueling Tour Divide ultra-distance bicycle race, and as usual spanner some trucks.

If you enjoyed the previous books, you will like this one. Mr. Martin bares his soul to the reader in refreshingly frank way. He doesn’t try to make himself look better than he is, and he freely admits that he can re-evaluate opinions and even change his mind completely on things. As we all should when circumstances change, I suppose.

When You Dead, You Dead – Guy Martin

Lorry mechanic, motorcycle racer and speed demon Guy Martin writes about his most eventful year to date. Including discussions about his inner chimp, Brian, and whether he should continue to race motorcycles.

An entertaining and interesting read, just like the first book. Behind the aw-shucks exterior is an intelligent, passionate and driven man who is still discovering what it is that makes him tick.

At the Edge of Space: The X-15 Flight Program – Milton O. Thompson

The X-15 program ran from 1959 to 1968, with three aircraft exploring high altitude and high-speed flight. The research program contributed a wide range of scientific advances that were instrumental in the development of the Space Shuttle and fly by wire control technology, among other things. The work of flying the X-15 was dangerous and exacting, leading to the death of one pilot and involving numerous emergencies. It remains to this date by far the fastest and highest-flying winged aircraft in history.

Mr. Thompson’s account is matter-of-fact, with few embellishments. (The author does note that he is not a writer.) While it retains a certain flatness of style throughout, the book is nonetheless fascinating for the aviation buff. These men, including a young Neil Armstrong, were exploring the unknown fringes of the flight envelope in an unforgiving aircraft, frequently referred to in the book as “The Bull”. While sometimes the text veers into catalogues of flights with their respective purposes, it is peppered with interesting and funny anecdotes, as well as edge-of-your-seat accounts of in-flight emergencies.

Flying Upside Down – Duke Nukem

An extremely irreverent book about flying as a contract pilot in Mainland China. Everything from living conditions, to pay, to punitive schemes for minor infractions, to hair-raising transcripts of conversations with air traffic control, management, and first officers. The structure is loose, mainly made up of anecdotes and redacted emails from company officials.

The book is self-published and free to distribute. It is also full of grammatical and orthographic errors, with a structure that barely deserves the moniker. The tone is joking, sarcastic and exasperated, often to excess. The formatting goes from passable to awful. The content, though, is fascinating and horrifying in equal measure. The non-pilot would probably not find it very interesting, as it is full of jargon and addresses the unique aspects challenges of the profession.

How Apollo Flew to the Moon – W. David Wood

A technical overview of the Apollo program, from hardware to missions, set at a level suitable for the interested layman. The author wisely starts discussions from first principles, from a basic explanation of orbits to the intricacies of stellar navigation.

The book is extremely well researched and clearly written. Mr. Wood has sprinkled the text with actual radio chatter and interviews with the protagonists. This elevates the chapters from a dry, textbook style discussion into something far more real.

A must read for any space program enthusiast.

Forever Young: A Life of Adventure in Air and Space – John W. Young with James R. Hansen

John Young was undoubtedly the most experienced astronaut of NASA’s early era, active from the days of Gemini, through Apollo and the Space Shuttle. He walked on the Moon, commanded the first test flight of the Space Shuttle and didn’t retire from NASA until he was seventy-four. He was legendary for his soft-spoken demeanour, coolness under pressure and later in his career, for not being afraid to speak truth to power on issues of mission risk.

His memoir is laid out in a straightforward chronological fashion, starting with early life and following him throughout his career in the Navy and at NASA. While he is most well known for his missions, his time as head of the Astronaut Office and then as a sort of senior and independent safety inspector within NASA, make up large parts of the narrative. There is also ample space dedicated to the Challenger and Columbia accidents, with extensive technical detail.

For any NASA and space buff, the memoir is interesting reading. However, it is a bit of a slog. The style is quite dry and self-effacing, much as the man himself. Descriptions of missions mostly chronicle events without poetic embellishments. This is in stark contrast with, for example, the memoirs of Gene Cernan, Gene Krantz and Mike Mullane, which in their different ways speak much more passionately about the subject matter. The book feels long-winded in many parts, with sections which are just listing various mission achievements, seemingly for completeness’ sake. The most readable bits are where Mr. Young manages to convey his considerable technical expertise to illustrate an issue concisely, such as when he discusses his testimony before the Rogers Commission, investigating Challenger.

I strongly felt that more decisive editing could have made this a more readable book, but then again, I also felt that Mr. Young’s particular voice came through loud and clear.

Tide of Battle – Michael Z. Williamson

Short story and essay collection. The fiction runs the gamut from entries in the author’s Freehold Universe, to Victorian fantasy, and a rather interesting novella set in an alternate Bronze Age, pitting sentient humanoid felines against mind-controlling dinosaur-like reptiles. The essays contain some amusing musings on rifle technology, as well as very inappropriate, and often hilarious, cocktail recipes.

While I don’t always agree with Mr. Williamson’s political views, even in his fiction, he offers insightful political and social commentary with a great deal of thought and research behind it. There is a short passage about how his views have developed in the two decades since he published Freehold. This passage provides tantalising glimpse of an interesting mind which does not deny the impact of new data.

Breaking the Chains of Gravity: The Story of Spaceflight before NASA – Amy Shira Teitel

This is the story of how the American space program came to be. Starting with humble experiments in the early 20th century, continuing with the German rocketeers of the 30s and 40s, and developing into the advanced US military programs in the 50s.

Ms. Teitel is a space historian and producer of the popular YouTube channel Vintage Space, in which she presents short segments focusing on particular bits of space history. The subject matter of this book is fascinating, and not only because it is not as popular as the early NASA period from the formation of the agency to the end of the Apollo Program, which is documented and described in hundreds of books and documentaries. The story of the German rocketeers before and during World War II reads almost like a thriller.

Ms. Teitel lays out the subject matter clearly, mostly avoiding confusion by periodically reminding the reader of myriad programs and initiatives with repeated mentions of names. Given the very intricate events and relationships of the post-war US rocket launch initiatives, this is no small feat.  While clarity is achieved, a history should focus on bringing people and events to life. This one fails to really grip the reader and would probably not be very an interesting read to the non-enthusiast. A more in-depth focus on a changing society, or a deep dive into technology, or character analysis of particular figures and their motivations, would have made the whole thing more engaging and less bland. Put bluntly, the story told lacks the ability to provoke passion in the reader because there is little depth presented. Many parts read like an encyclopedia entry.

The prose could use some polish, perhaps with stricter editing. There is an overuse of “as well” and “also”. Too many sentences start with conjunctions, making for a sometimes jarring rhythm in the text. The decision to use purely US/Imperial units without conversions even in footnotes makes the text less accessible to readers from most of the world.

The subtitle is somewhat misleading. While the Soviet space program is frequently featured, there is no in-depth analysis of that side, and information on the adversary serves mostly as background to the US program.

Flying the Knife Edge: New Guinea Bush Pilot – Matt McLaughlin

Mr. McLaughlin started his aviation career in the Royal New Zealand Air Force, but washed out before completing his initial training. He then found work as a “bush pilot” in Papua New Guinea for a few years, notorious for some of the most dangerous flying conditions on Earth.

I have a soft spot for aviation memoirs, and I enjoyed this one more than most. Mr. McLaughlin writes with both sincerity and an entertaining dry wit. The humour starkly contrasts many of the events depicted, as in sections the book seems to be the chronicle of a succession of fatal crashes. Highly recommended for the aviation enthusiast, but perhaps not as quite as entertaining for those not enamoured with the field.

The Obesity Code: Unlocking the Secrets of Weight Loss – Jason Fung

Dr. Jason Fung is a specialist in Type 2 Diabetes and obesity. The Obesity Code goes back to first principles in order to explain why people become obese, and what they can do about it.

I liked the fact that almost every bold statement in the book, of which there are many, was thoroughly researched and supported by actual data. This is not a pop-science guide with only vague foundations that “seem to make sense”. If the data doesn’t fit, Dr. Fung examines why it doesn’t, and which hypothesis would actually fit. This is tome of solid science targeted at the layman.

What I found most interesting was how complex the mechanisms controlling weight gain and loss are. I had for a long time believed strongly that input vs. output was the only answer. It seems I was wrong, or at least only partially correct. It turns out that most perceived wisdom about weight is, if not incorrect, then at least incomplete, especially if individual factors are taken in isolation. And that is perhaps the key message. You cannot take a single reaction and single it out. A holistic approach is needed.

Now to do some testing on myself.