Playing the Enemy – Nelson Mandela and the Game That Made a Nation – John Carlin

PlayingtheEnemyThe story of how Nelson Mandela became a free man and then united South Africa with the help of rugby.

The story is fascinating, a real-life fairy tale. South Africa was on the brink of civil war but in large part through the efforts of Mandela, disaster was averted, and even turned into triumph. Perhaps this book goes too far in sanctifying Mandela, but by all accounts he was the true statesman depicted. In fact, verbatim quotes from interviews with the main characters lend veracity to the story itself. On a side note, the author’s structure was often somewhat less than smooth, with run-on sentences of ambiguous meaning.

The second half of this book was the basis for the movie Invictus, a favorite of mine.

4Rosbochs

Gweilo: A memoir of a Hong Kong Childhood – Martin Booth

GweiloMartin Booth moved to Hong Kong with his parents in 1952, at the age of seven. This is an autobiographical account of the first three years he spent in the then British colony. Mr. Booth was obviously a curious and unafraid boy, roaming widely about the streets and hills of Kowloon and Hong Kong while connecting firmly with the local culture and people.

Having lived in Hong Kong for several years now, this book held particular interest for me. Mr. Booth lets us see Hong Kong through his eyes, without adult judgment or bias. I got the impression that he retells his experiences as Booth the boy saw them, not as Booth the man interpreted them later. This infuses the chronicle with a refreshing naivete. Mr. Booth’s stick-in-the-mud bully of a father contrasted with the adventurous and ever curious mother, make for an colorful domestic backdrop to his adventures. While it is easy to think that a young boy did not actually experience all the things described, and that age has romanticized in the author’s mind events which happened long ago, the authenticity of people’s reactions and places described makes me want to believe that Mr. Booth really did all these things. No doubt he was a more adventurous boy than most.

The love that Mr. Booth felt for Hong Kong shines through the pages. His eagerness to seek out new and foreign experiences should be encouraged in all people, not just expats. It was how he became really aware of his surroundings in a way that many expats are not.

NOTE: This book is entitled “Golden Boy: Memories of a Hong Kong Childhood” in the USA edition.

4½Rosbochs

Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of his Time – Dava Sobel

LongitudeLongitude is the story of an unlikely genius, John Harrison. Self-trained clockmaker, he solved the problem of determining longitude on ships during the second half of the 18th Century. Determining longitude is trivial today with GPS, but for hundreds of years it was a big problem and inaccurate navigation was the death of thousands of sailors. There was even a Longitude Prize to be awarded for the man who could solve the issue.

In itself, the creation of the Harrison timepieces is a fascinating bit of science history. However, the real prize here is the political backstabbing at the highest levels of the contemporary British science community. The problem at hand was that various methods for longitude determination competed for primacy. Harrison, the relatively undistinguished watchmaker, found it hard to compete with the villain of the story, or in the author’s words the anti-hero. This man was Nevil Maskelyne, who seems to have been a bit of a bastard. To be fair, however, Maskelyne made significant contributions to navigation. Luminaries like Edmond Halley and Sir Isaac Newton also feature prominently.

I have been fascinated with geography since I was a child, and I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Well-written and without any excessive heft from unnecessary tangents, it should be good reading for everyone, but especially those with even a passing interest in navigation and maritime history.

4Rosbochs

Failure is not an Option: Mission Control From Mercury to Apollo 13 and Beyond – Gene Krantz

Failure is not an Option - Mission Control From Mercury to Apollo 13 and BeyondThis non-fiction account of the NASA manned space programs from the early days of Mercury through the triumphs of Apollo was written by Gene Krantz, one of the original flight controllers in Mission Control, and probably the best known. While most accounts of the events focus on the astronauts and the spacecraft, Krantz naturally takes us into the world of Mission Control. It is a fascinating “behind the scenes” look at the people and equipment that led and supported the missions. While the astronauts got most of the glory, the truth is that Mission Control saved the day on many occasions.

This is by all accounts a geeky book. The material is often rather technical and having a prior understanding of some of the mechanics involved definitely helps. Just like the author and his former job, it is written with the precision and honesty that Krantz values.

Setting aside for a moment the spectacular achievements of the American space programs in the sixties, I was struck by Krant’s unabashed patriotism. He is a big fan of John Philip Sousa marches and feels great pride when listening to the national anthem. This is not the showy, hollow national love so prominent nowadays, but a true, deep connection. Krantz worked very hard to achieve great things, and he did it predominantly for his country. He gave to his country through blood, sweat and tears. His feelings are those characteristic of a generation past, one that did not show love of country by clicking “Like”, but actually by sacrificing. It smacks of an innocence lost in the late nineteen-sixties, when Americans stopped looking up to their politicians and when they stopped believing they could achieve great things. Krantz does indeed mention this himself in the epilogue. While reading, I found myself growing very fond of Krantz. He could by all accounts be tough as nails, but he feels an affection towards his colleagues that is very different from the empty corporate speak of many of today’s leaders. The world needs more people like Gene Krantz. People who dare to step up and doing the hard things because they feel that they need to be done.

On a side note, it was nice to see the footnotes in line with the text instead of at the end. On a Kindle, following a link to the footnotes is an annoyance.

4Rosbochs

Beyond Lion Rock – The Story of Cathay Pacific Airways – Gavin Young

BeyondLionRockTheStoryofCathayPacificAirwaysThis history tackles both strands that begat Cathay Pacific, Hong Kong’s de facto “national carrier”. One side is the pioneering work of founders Roy Farrell and Syd de Kantzow, both ex-military transport pilots and veterans of the treacherous “Hump” route over the Himalayas during World War II. Farrell bought a military surplus DC-3, the now famous Betsy, and started an airline from nothing before he was soon joined by de Kantzow. The other side is more establishment, with trading and shipping conglomerate Swire, led by Jock Swire, seeking to “get into Air” to further interests in the Far Eastern trade. Swire acquired Cathay Pacific a few years after the founding of the airline and still owns it today.

The book is very well researched, and the author has interviewed dozens of the major and minor players of the airline’s interesting history. It is interesting not only from the point of view of the aviation enthusiast, but very much also for its fascinating glimpses into Hong Kong immediately post war, through recovery and finally into the uncertain future of Chinese rule (the book was published in 1989, eight years before the handover). The author freely admits that he hasn’t bothered much with incidents of drunken pilots, pilots sleeping with stewardesses (or wifes with pilots out flying) or any such since these incidents are hardly peculiar to Cathay Pacific. Mr. Young focuses instead on defining events such as new aircraft types, new routes, scandals and accidents, viewed through the lens of regional history. The brief snippets from interviews with former and (then) current staff, as well as affiliated officials and businessmen, bring vividness and immediacy to the story.

My criticism, or shall we say niggle, with this book is that perhaps Mr. Young seems a touch too enamored with Cathay Pacific and the romance of the Far Eastern trade. But then again who can blame him? Even in the eighties, times were different. Certainly when the airline was started, Hong Kong was a remote and romantic place in the eyes of Westerners. A frontier where fortunes could be made and lost by those bold enough to take the often harrowing risks required.

4Rosbochs

Bonk – The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex

BonkThis non-fiction book describes and explores “sex science” in a way that the layman can understand. Ms. Roach has performed extensive research, traveling around the world and around the US Patent Office website among other places. In a frank but very amusing style peppered with the driest of irony, she goes through everything from sex therapy in antiquity to sex machines for therapy and research, to genital implants.

Despite sometimes cringing at the descriptions of surgeries and other things in intimate regions, I found this a fascinating read. Ms. Roach can probably make any subject fun, and when combined with the somewhat taboo aspect, her writing makes for compelling reading.

If I had one gripe, it was that while all individual chapters were interesting, by about two-thirds of the way through I was losing interest. I guess there’s only so much sex science I can take.

4Rosbochs

The World According to Clarkson – Jeremy Clarkson

TheWorldAccordingtoClarksonThis book is a collection of Jeremy Clarkson of Top Gear‘s columns in the Sunday Times between 2001 and 2003. He muses on everything from Concorde’s retirement to delayed flights in Spain. As usual, Mr. Clarkson is irreverent, frequently offensive, and more often than not just plan provocative. For the most part, he is quite funny and entertaining. I enjoyed it but it is probably not for everyone.

3½Rosbochs

Fate is the Hunter – Ernest Gann

FateistheHunterFor aviators, this is the ultimate, classic memoir. Ernest Gann started flying in the late thirties, flew transport planes all over the world during WWII, and continued flying for airlines thereafter. This book is part chronicle of his many adventures and misadventures, part collection of thoughts on life and flying.

Even a pilot with my limited experience can immediately discern the fundamental authenticity in the erudite voice of this true aviator. The book is episodic, with sequential periods and incidents within serving to move Gann’s destiny forward. Gann writes elegantly, peppering his oftentimes long whimsical tangents with razor sharp understatement. Technical matters become uncomplicated as they are reduced to how they really concern the pilot and his mental state. The essence of what it feels like to fly, in clear skies, in storms and in pouring rain, in Arctic winter and Saharan oven and Amazon jungle, is eloquently explained and examined, with an eye for that poetic and magnificent experience that truly attracts pilots towards flight.

Quite a magnificent book for pilots, and one that will hold the interest of others as well.

4Rosbochs

The Articulate Executive – Granville N. Toogood

This non fiction book is about how to speak in public and visual aids to that end. The author’s name is a bit worrying and in fact Toogood comes across much as he describes himself: “a fairly facile, somewhat sophisticated Eastern Ivy League City Slicker”.

Don’t let that faze you! This book (or most of it, at least) is a real gem if you ever need to speak in public, or even in a small group in a corporate setting. The tips and tricks, techniques and anecdotes are excellent. Anyone in working life can benefit from this quick read, and I highly recommend it.

There are unfortunately some small factual errors in the examples, but that doesn’t detract from the usefulness of the book. Toogood is undoubtedly a good speaker, but he sometimes gets carried away with his examples to the point of making errors.

In the Beginning… Was the Command Line – Neal Stephenson

Non-fiction from Stephenson. This is the story of the PC as written by a cyberpunk author. Stephenson, not unexpectedly, turns out to be a Linux fanatic. He comes at the events from unexpected angles, making the book quite a bit of fun for the enthusiast. However if you are not a “computer person” this probably won’t interest you.

Bad Astronomy – Philip Plait

Subtitled ‘Misconceptions and Misuses Revealed, from Astrology to the Moon Landing “Hoax”‘, this book discusses misconceptions related to astronomy. For example, various false explanations to why the sky is blue are talked about. The first part is about things like tides, eclipses. Then the book moves on to things like astrology and the purported Moon landing hoax. There is also a section on bad astronomy in films.

Philip Plait is an astronomer who also runs the excellent Bad Astronomy website. He has made a name for himself as a rationalist and debunker. His casual and easy style defuses any potential animosity in the text. He dislikes fraudsters and but he does not speak condescendingly about those who merely misunderstand. He also goes out of the way to explain complex physical phenomena in ways that laymen can understand.

It’s a fun book even if you don’t have much interest in astronomy, and I learned quite a bit reading it.

Rude Astronauts – Allen Steele

This is a collection of short stories and articles. Steele’s has a journalistic style and tends to describe the actual “normal people” protagonists of an event as opposed to the powers that be. He is seldom grandiose, but his stories tend to be very crisp and relatable. The articles are from Steele’s time as a science reporter in Florida.

Born to Run – Christopher McDougall

The book is subtitled “A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World has Ever Seen.” Part journey of self-discovery, part chronicle, part medical exposé, this extraordinary book starts with a quest by the author to figure out why it hurts when he runs. Thus begins a tale so incredible it seems like fiction, populated by weird and wonderful characters like La Brujita (The Little Witch), El Lobo Joven (the Young Wolf) and the incomparable Caballo Blanco (White Horse).

As he digs deeper into the ultra-marathon world, McDougall finally finds his answers in the remote Copper Canyons of Mexico, where a reclusive tribe called the Tarahumara have honed the art of running on rocky, mountainous trails to perfection. In sandals.

The insights into running from an evolutionary and physiological standpoint are fascinating. Human beings are built to run, and they are not meant to do it in running shoes. Running should be fun and natural, not a slog or a chore. Children know this, so why do we forget as adults?

As my fortieth approaches, I have incidentally started to understand what the author is talking about. About a year ago, I started doing serious exercise including lots of running. A few months later, I chucked my running shoes in favor of a pair of Vibram Five Fingers, which have no cushioning at all. My aches and pains are gone and I run faster and better than I have ever done.

The author’s easy style and unobtrusive humor make this fascinating story a pleasure to read. If you’ve ever run or wanted to run more than a few metres, you should read this book. It may well change your life.

 

Fast Food Nation – Eric Schlosser

Non-fiction about “the truth” behind America’s fast food industry and its role in shaping American culture. Fascinating reading that goes through the history of fast food, then continues with the labor practices and the food itself. Schlosser is neither a vegan nor an anti-globalist. He just wants a healthy burger. Some of the facts revealed are pretty scary and it can be enough to put you off fast food forever. But this should not be seen only as a book about fast food, It also examines fast food as a metaphor for modern American (and global) society. If you have ever eaten fast food, you might want to read this book.

The Demon-Haunted World – Carl Sagan

The great Carl Sagan explains how science works and how it can rescue us from harmful ignorance. The way in which he debunks myths of all kinds is great. Well written and accessible, I would recommend this to anyone who wants to annoy people fascinated by the occult. Jokes aside, this is a very important book that I think everyone should read.

The Prophet Muhammad – Barnaby Rogerson

A biography of Muhammad. I should qualify that: A rather short and basic biography of Muhammad. Since I knew next to nothing of the man or the birth of Islam, this served as a good primer. Rogerson has been a guide in the Middle East for over two decades, and it shows in his writing. Lots of details of places, just like a guided tour. However, it is not terribly engaging reading once you get past the places to descriptions of people and events. Rogerson treats the issue of mystical revelation rather well, without judgement. He simply describes Muhammad as having visions. He focuses more on Muhammad’s reactions to the visions that on the visions themselves.

Taliban – Ahmed Rashid

Non-fiction about the history and present of Afghanistan. Written before 9/11, it gives a clear picture of why events turned out the way it did. At times heavy and gloomy reading, it is nevertheless very interesting. The author’s conclusions may be a biased, but it is hard to argue the fact that foreign influence (or lack of it) in Afghanistan served the purposes of the emerging Taliban regime. One could almost see this as a sort of manual in how not to perform foreign policy.

Scatterbrain – Larry Niven

Well, he certainly is a scatterbrain, as he readily admits in the introduction. Although I feel that Niven’s writing has been in a steady decline for the past couple of decades, his short fiction and especially his articles are always great fun. Like N-Space and Playgrounds of the Mind this is a mix of new and old short fiction, book excerpts and articles. Enjoyable reading for the Niven fan.

 

N-Space and Playgrounds of the Mind – Larry Niven

If you’ve never read Larry Niven, these two collections are a great place to start. They are both a mix of essays, short fiction, and excerpts from novels. If you’ve already read practically all of Niven’s work, there is not a lot of new material, but the convention essays still make the books worth the read.

Niven’s Laws – Larry Niven

This little hardback volume doesn’t contain a lot of new stories, but it does give a good insight into the mind of Larry Niven. The hilarious stories from science fiction conventions are priceless. Recommended only for the hardcore Niven fan.