Books, Books, and More Books
These are the books I read in 2014
1. Beyond Band of Brothers, by Major Richard Winters
Dick Winters was the central character in Steven Spielberg’s and Tom Hanks’ mini-series, Band of Brothers, based on the bestselling book of the same title by Stephen Ambrose. Winters’ calm, quiet bravery is the archetype of the American GI. We all like to think of ourselves as this rare man, and not as the many anti-heroes produced by combat.
This is Dick Winter’s memoir, wherein he finally puts his own voice into the larger-than-life story of this most famous Airborne infantryman. You see more clearly his religious devotion and his love of family, and his still-seething rage at some of the injustices he witnessed. This is not elegant writing, but it is very real. I would recommend it to the serious fan.
2. No Less than Victory, by Jeff Shaara
A workmanlike telling of the story of the Battle of the Bulge.
3. The Frugal Woodturner: Make and Modify all the Tools and Equipment You Need, by Ernie Conover
Self-taught son of a self-taught wood turner describes ingenious ways of doing things differently from everyone else.
4. Box Making, by Doug Stowe
I make far too few wooden boxes. This book will help me to make more of them.
5. The Verse by the Side of the Road, by Frank Rowsome, Jr.
A history of the Burma Shave sign. Author Rowsome tells the complete story of the innovative roadside advertising campaign along with the text of all 600 of the rhymes.
Back in the first half of the 20th Century, as America was falling hopelessly in love with the motorcar, a Midwestern shaving-soap company initiated a successful and ground-breaking advertising campaign using small roadside signs. The signs often masqueraded as public safety messages warning drivers not to drink or get distracted behind the wheel, but just as often were simple product pitches. What distinguished the Burma Shave signs was that they were always in a series of small red signs posted in a row along the roadside in such a manner that they could be read in a sequence, with the last one giving the company’s name.
The rhymes reflect the morals of a different era, when chaste dating was the norm and the dangers of driving on crowded roads was just becoming apparent. Thus they are a peek into our history and where we came from as much as they are about soap.
Some amusing rhymes include:
HIS FACE WAS SMOOTH
AND COOL AS ICE
AND OH LOUISE!
WITHIN THIS VALE
YOUR HEAD GROWS BALD
BUT NOT YOUR CHIN — USE
WHEN YOU DRIVE
IF CAUTION CEASES
YOU ARE APT
6. Foolproof Wood Finishing: For Those Who Love to Build and Hate to Finish, by Teri Masaschi
7. USS Preble, by William Kaufman
A friend of mine — a fellow model railroad enthusiast — wrote and self-published this book, which is how I came to learn of its existence. It’s an interesting, fact-based novel about a naval officer and a warship in World War II. The book has issues, but is still fascinating.
8. The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the The Oxford English Dictionary, by Simon Winchester
The OED was the original crowd-sourced project. Contributions were solicited from across Great Britain and one of the greatest contributors turned out to be a man imprisoned — and rightly so — for murder. Winchester tells the fascinating story of the relationship between the embattled editor of the OED and the learned inmate.
9. Hybrid Woodworking: Blending Power & Hand Tools for Quick, Quality Furniture, by Marc Spagnolo, The Wood Whisperer
Industrialization killed the craft of the wood worker in the Western world. Machines such as electric powered planers, jointers, drill presses, shapers, and table saws made the manual skills of the furniture maker obsolete. Over the years, the prices of these power tools dropped sufficiently to be affordable to the hobbyist, and the weekend woodworker was born. But then an interesting thing happened: not a few of these hobbyists began to discover the joy of working wood with those old hand tools that grandpa had used but that dad had set aside. A few more hobbyists began to make replicas of those old hand tools using modern manufacturing techniques, and the craft of hand wood working was reborn.
There are purists, who make fine furniture using only the hand tools that were in use a couple of hundred years ago. A larger group has emerged (and I’m one of them) who favor a hybrid approach: using power tools for the things they are best at, but using hand tools for the rest, simply because — outside of a production environment — they give better results just as fast and are far more pleasant and satisfying to use. Hand tools are quiet and produce shavings, not dust. Dust is dangerous to breath, shavings are cool.
Marc Spagnolo is a talented young wood worker who embraced the hybrid solution simultaneously with embracing the Internet as a medium. He calls himself The Wood Whisperer and runs an eponymous Website as a guild for amateurs. He publishes excellent quality, highly detailed videos on how to make things in your shop using the best of both hand and power tools for guild members only (I’m one), but he has lots of good, free stuff for everyone. This book is a compilation of his techniques and it is excellent, but video is his métier.
10. The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture, by Wendell Berry
This is a remarkable book by a remarkable author. It is a manifesto for improving our lives by improving the way we cultivate our food. As Berry tells it, we once were a nation of farmers, and that our agriculture was the source of our strength.
Remember how we learned about the great American expansion of the 1800s? When settlers headed West, fulfilling our Manifest Destiny, and brought agriculture, civilization, and prosperity to the American Heartland? Well, argues Berry, we’ve spent the second half of the 20th Century unraveling that effort. Those thousands of little farming towns are empty and bankrupt, those millions of farm houses standing like sentinels in quarter sections of verdant loam are now abandoned and unwanted. Those hundreds of American cities built on domestic agriculture are now broken and hollow specters of ruin.
Berry makes the indisputable point that culture is created by agriculture, and as a nation, we have destroyed agriculture, thus we have mortally wounded our own culture. I find his arguments clear and compelling. As America spirals into the abyss, where do you begin to set things right again? In the dirt.
Yes, Berry’s arguments have some issues, as accepting them wholesale would force us to return to a patriarchal society, but he’s as correct as any other social critic I’ve read. When you consider that this was written in the 1960s, it seems to achieve prescience.
11. Moonshine!: Recipes, Tall Tales, Drinking Songs, Historical Stuff, Knee-Slappers, How to Make It, How to Drink It, Pleasin’ the Law, Recoverin’ the Next Day, by Matthew Rowley
I’d love to make moonshine. The equipment is fairly simple and the process is thousands of years old. Basically, you can take any organic matter, like potatoes, corn, or wheat, crush it and boil it, then just let it ferment naturally. After a day or two you boil it and condense the resulting vapors into drinkable alcohol. Unfortunately, in the USA, it remains illegal, if only desultorily enforced. I have other hobbies that won’t get me into trouble.
12. Anathem, by Neal Stephenson
I really like Stephenson. He is a creative original. However, he needs an editor. This book was too long. In this novel he constructs a world slightly different from our own, one where the religion is based on science, and the secular world has crazy beliefs about bearded men in the sky. Once you slog your way to the end, you find out that this notion of a parallel universe isn’t just an intriguing backdrop for a quest, but is an integral part of the story.
13. Sight Unseen, by Robert Goddard
I like Goddard’s books and I’ve read many of them over the years. He spins fascinating mysteries that are…unusual. They are meticulously plotted stories that often involve untangling events that occurred decades ago. While their structure tends to be similar from book to book, each one is interesting in its own right. This one dealt with a kidnapping that goes bad, and a witness is killed by the getaway car. Many years later, seemingly after all the evidence is washed away, a few interested parties emerge and solve the puzzle.
14. Measure Twice, Cut Once: Lessons from a Master Carpenter, by Norm Abram
Norm is a carpenter who makes furniture, and has a lot to offer in techniques, tools, and values. His television show, The New Yankee Workshop, is an excellent demonstration of his skills and approach. This book is less useful than watching him make things.
15. The Political Mind, by George Lakoff
Lakoff is a brilliant scientist who has done ground-breaking work in understanding linguistics and human cognition. In this fine book he turns the bright light of his intellect upon the puzzle of politics and particularly how conservatives seem to be able to frame their issues in a compelling way, and how progressives struggle to do so. This book will give you a greater understanding of how humans think, and why our political world is shaped the way it is.
16. The Finishing School: Earning the Navy SEAL Trident, by Dick Couch
Dick Couch is a former Navy SEAL, so he knows what he’s talking about. This book is a follow-up to his earlier work on the the Navy SEAL program, The Warrior Elite. In this book, he focuses on the training the SEALs receive. It will leave you in awe of the skill, dedication, intelligence, strength, stamina, experience, and courage of these men.
17. Cutting for Stone, by Abraham Verghese
An excellent novel about a gynecologist in Ethiopia, son of a Carmelite nun from India, and an enigmatic English surgeon. This is a masterful work by a skilled novelist. Highly recommended.
18. Blanket Chests: Outstanding Designs from 30 of the World’s Finest Furniture Makers, by Peter Turner and Word Works
So many things to build, so little time.
19. Catch-22, by Joseph Heller
I first read this remarkable book in 1968 on the recommendation of an acquaintance. Actually, that acquaintance, and his pal, upon learning that I had not yet read the book, proceeded to recite — from memory — the entire dialog from Clevinger’s court-martial, one of the more amusing scenes in the novel. Throughout the remainder of the 60s and 70s, I read the book several times and its disturbing story strongly influenced this youthful reader.
Reading the book again after 30 years was still as enjoyable as before. Author Heller, wanting to show the irrationality of war, writes
irrationally of war. His characters have become archetypes of state-approved, inexplicable, and terribly self-destructive behavior.
I find that I still don’t like or understand the ending. It still feels tacked on, inconclusive, and incongruous. I get the strong feeling that Heller never did understand what the bottom line of his novel really was, and so the ending was contrived. This doesn’t detract from the value of the book, though.
20. Helen of Troy, by Margaret George
This was too boring for me to make much headway with. Abandoned.
21. Mission to Paris, by Alan Furst
Another excellent dark and moody spy novel from the master. I always enjoy Furst’s novels for their characters, situations, and moody environment even when they seem a little repetitive, as this one does.
22. Another River, Another Town: A Teenage Tank Gunner Comes of Age in Combat — 1945, by John P. Irwin
A well-but-simply told, familiar story of a very young man growing up in the rigors of war.
23. Sutton, by E. R. Mohringer
Hard to believe but this is Mohringer’s first work of fiction, he does such an excellent job. In order to tell the story of enigmatic bank robber, Willy Sutton, Mohringer invents an unusual literary device and, through his abundant skill, makes it work. This is a great and readable story, and whether or not you believe it all hinges on a single comment made by Sutton’s lover late in the book. Very well done.
24. Winter of the World, by Ken Follett
The second book of Follett’s great trilogy of the 20th Century. Over the years, Follett’s writing has become a caricature of Follett’s writing. I still like it, but literature it ain’t.
25. Why We Make Things, and Why It Matters: The Education of a Craftsman, by Peter Korn
Korn is the founder of a woodworking school in New England. This is his memoir of his life and how he came to create his school and its undergirding philosophy.
26. The New Traditional Woodworker: From Tool Set to Skill Set to Mind Set, by Jim Tolpin
Many woodworking hobbyists are discovering the joy of working with hand tools and eschewing power tools completely. They get more intimate and appreciative of their tools and their materials, the shop is a quieter and more pleasant place to work, and there is no dangerous sawdust to avoid (hand tools produce chips; machine tools produce dust).
What’s more, when not burdened with the need to produce furniture in production quantities and free to build just one piece at a time, it turns out that using only hand tools isn’t appreciably slower. Power tools don’t make you better — arguably they make you worse — they just make it so you can repeat things faster.
Tolpin is one of those converts to the new traditionalism and his book is a series of progressively more difficult exercises in woodworking that teach you the basics of using hand tools correctly, effectively, and satisfactorily.
27. Redshirts, by John Scalzi
Never having been a fan of the 60s TV show Star Trek, I worried that this book would be lost on me. Still, I didn’t quite live in a cave back then, so even I know that the cheesy TV show regularly killed off unimportant characters to convey danger or drama, and that those doomed actors — coincidentally or not — always seemed to be wearing red shirts in their fatal episode.
To his everlasting credit, author John Scalzi decided to write a serious science fiction novel about this amusing phenomenon, and succeeded in making it a) interesting, b) believable, and c) compelling to this non-Trekkie.
28. The Year Without Pants, by Scott Berkun
Berkun spent about a year and a half working for a company, Automattic, for the specific purpose of writing this book about his experience. The company is unique in many ways, and Berkun’s motivation for the book was to describe the different approach the company has to many conventional corporate challenges.
Notably, Automattic, the company that created and maintains WordPress blogging software, is totally distributed with employees located all around the world. And not just a few employees, but all of its staff is widespread. There is no real “home office.”
While Berkun’s descriptions of how day to day work, hallway conversations, and formal meetings are conducted across thousands of miles and dozens of time zones is fascinating, he seems to be downplaying the reason why this particular company can do it successfully, and makes the implicit challenge for others to try it disingenuous. Automattic is an open source company. From the very beginning, its founder and all of its employees did their work voluntarily. Employees were selected from the ranks of people who had already demonstrated their commitment, skill, and dedication by contributing source code purely for the love of doing so.
Still, it’s an important look at one way organizations of the future can be constructed, and well worth reading.
29. On Call in Hell: A Doctor’s Iraq War Story, by Richard Jadick
Fascinating story of a Doctor who decides — correctly — that bringing the medical aid station closer to the front line will save grievously wounded soldier’s lives. Of course, bringing the aid station closer to combat endangers the doctor, too. Jadick puts his theories into practice in Iraq, and this makes for a gripping memoir.
30. The Forgotten 500: The Untold Story of the Men Who Risked All for the Greatest Rescue Mission of World War II, by Gregory A. Freeman
Now that just about everyone involved in World War II is dead, there is an enormous amount of really interesting stuff coming out of the shadows. This fascinating book is about a heroic mission that was never made public and almost didn’t happen because of some despicable political alliances made by people far from the battlefield.
31. The 100-Mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating, by Alisa Smith and J.B.Mackinnon
A two-handed memoir of a young Canadian couple eating only locally grown food. This artful small book is the outcome of a blog about the year-long project.
32. Double Cross, by Ben McIntyre
Last year I read McIntyre’s superb book on the subterfuge surrounding the Allied invasion of Sicily in World War II. This book is McIntyre’s telling of the even larger effort at deceiving the Nazis about the D-Day invasion of Normandy.
The book is a spellbinding and comprehensive look into the behavior of real spies, who are simultaneously more quotidian than those of Le Carré and more flamboyant than those of Ian Fleming. The truth is far stranger than any fiction.
33. Midnight in Europe, by Alan Furst
Alan Furst is back in the saddle with another impossible-to-put-down spy novel. I save my Furst books for long voyages or bouts with illness, when I know that I will have many consecutive hours to enjoy soaking in the moody ambiance of this great series of novels.
34. Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City, by Greg Grandin
This is one of the best books I’ve read this year. It is very well researched and contains no speculation, just documented facts, yet it reads like a novel.
In the late 1920s, tremendously successful entrepreneurial automobile maker Henry Ford was consolidating his empire on two fronts. Firstly, he pioneered vertical integration, whereby he owned his entire supply chain. He owned iron and coal mines, railroads, smelters, and steel factories to supply his automotive plants. He owned forests and lumber mills to supply wooden parts for his cars. His second area of innovation was social engineering, and while he had some notable successes, his overall record was pretty dismal.
This fascinating book tells the story of his efforts at both vertical integration and social engineering through the lens of Ford’s attempt in 1927 to build a rubber plantation in the Amazon jungle of Brazil. The plantation included a model city, called Fordlandia.
The parallels to current efforts at social engineering by today’s captains of digital enterprise are abundant. The perspective of a century make it clear that the attempts by Bill Gates, Larry Page, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and other Henry Fords of today are just as doomed and ridiculous as those of a previous generation.
35. Going with the Grain: Making Chairs in the 21st Century, by Mike Abbott
Mike is an English “chair-bodger” who makes simple but incredibly stout chairs out of green wood, primarily ash. Inspiring.
36. Stand on Zanzibar, by John Brunner
I first read this ground-breaking dystopian science fiction novel shortly after it was first published in 1968. The innovative literary devices and the overall believability made a big impression on me. Re-reading it after 45 years is fascinating as forgotten characters and scenes come alive again. Remarkably, much of Brunner’s speculation about an overpopulated future has come true today.
37. Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture, by Toby Hemenway
The bible of permaculture for the masses by a genuinely brilliant teacher.
38. Make a Windsor Chair, by Mike Dunbar
Exhaustive discussion of making the essential Anglo-American human-holding device.
39. Chairmaking and Design, by Jeff Miller
Interesting descriptions of various chair making processes.