Book Review: Eighty Days

Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History Making Race Around the World
Matthew Goodman
Ballantine Books, New York
(c) 2013 by the author

You may have heard (at least I hope it’s somewhere in the dustier corners of your memory) that after the publication of Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days, people started seriously considering the possibility of such a circumnavigation. At the offices of Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, crusading reporter Nellie Bly was put up to the task. She departed from Hoboken NJ on November 14, 1889, heading across the Atlantic.

What I did not know was that later the same day, Elizabeth Bisland, a reporter and columnist for the monthly magazine The Cosmopolitan boarded a train leaving Grand Central heading west, with the same goal in mind.

The two women were not just racing the calendar, hoping that the uncertainties of long-distance travel (weather delays, equipment failures, et al.) would be minimal, but also each other.

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Book Review: How to Invent Everything

How to Invent Everything: A Survival Guide for the Stranded Time Traveler
by Ryan North
Riverhead Books
(c) 2018 by the author

It’s a fun conceit. Your rental time travel machine broke down, leaving you stranded in the distant past. And your FC3000(tm) personal time machine has no user serviceable parts. What do you need to know in order to not just survive or thrive, but start things moving towards an advanced technological civilization?

The book assumes you can manage to make a fire and build some sort of shelter (if your time machine has been damaged to the point where it won’t serve in that capacity, that is). As far as food goes, it gives the standard technique for safely determining if a plant is inedible or poisonous, and the helpful information that virtually all mammals and birds are safe to eat once cooked.

But then what?

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Book Review: The Field of Blood

The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to the Civil War
Joanne B. Freeman
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
(c) 2018 by the author

You might recall from your American History classes in school that in the few decades before the Civil War, Congress was filled with great orators like Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, and John C. Calhoun. Continuing in the fine tradition of our Founding Fathers, they and other congressmen would passionately debate the issues of the day, letting their words carry the force of their arguments….

Well, maybe in the Senate. In the House of Representatives, it was another story.

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Book Review – The Laundry Files

The Laundry Files series

by Charles Stross

The Atrocity Archives (2004)
The Jennifer Morgue (2006)
The Fuller Memorandum (2010)
The Apocalypse Codex (2012)
The Rhesus Chart (2014)
The Annihilation Score (2015)
The Nightmare Stacks (2016)
The Delirium Brief (2017)
The Labyrinth Index (to be published 2018)

It’s a mixed blessing for a fan of an author when that author has a really good series of stories that happens to be rather open-ended. There’s always the chance for another entry in the series, but you feel compelled to read them all. And there’s the problem that the stories might have a specific order in which they should be read. Miss one, and you lose a lot of background information in the next. Or the author has to keep adding annoying infodumps to fill the reader in.

With his “Laundry Files” stories (the above-mentioned novels, plus a handful of shorter works), Stross has managed to avoid those problems for the most part. While the order given is both the order of publication and the order in which the stories take place, they can be read and enjoyed separately. A couple of the later entries (Score, Stacks, Index) even center on side characters.

Speaking of which, the main character is Bob Howard, an office flunky in Britain’s secret government agency that deals with the “occult”. Thanks to being in the right place at the right time (though to Bob, it’s the wrong place and wrong time), he rises quickly through the ranks to become the de facto head of the agency.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Taking of K-129

The Taking of K-129
Josh Dean
Dutton Books
Copyright 2017 by the author

Those of you old enough to have lived through Ancient History may recall hearing stuff in the early 1970s about mining manganese nodules from the ocean floor. One of Howard Hughes’ companies contracted the building of a huge ship, the Glomar Explorer, to see if these nodules could actually be scooped up in any way that could possibly be practical and profitable.

Years later, it came to light that the mining operation was actually the cover story for collecting something even more valuable and outrageous: a sunken Soviet ballistic missile submarine.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Berlin Project

The Berlin Project
by Gregory Beford
Saga Press
Copyright 2017 by the author

“What if we had the atomic bomb a year earlier? The easiest and least expensive method of separating isotopes, a method used throughout the world today, is based on a centrifuge procedure that Harold Urey proposed in 1940. General Groves chose the diffusion method instead. Karl Cohen, Urey’s able assistant during that period, believes that Groves’ decision delayed the atomic bomb by a year.

“If Dr. Cohen is right, atomic bombs of the simple gun design might have become available in the summer of 1944 and, in that case, would surely have been used against the Nazis. Atomic bombs in 1944 might have meant that millions of Jews would not have died, and that Eastern Europe would have been spared more than four decades of Soviet domination.”

– Edward Teller, Memoirs

Benford posits that the team working on the centrifuge method got enough independent funding to fix the engineering problems they were having, and got their method chosen over the diffusion method.

This alternate history novel takes it from there, and follows the career of Karl Cohen, the lead engineer-chemist on the centrifuge project.

That Cohen happens to be Benford’s father-in-law, well….

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Book Review: The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

By Edward Gibbon
Published in six volumes, 1776-1789
With commentary by Henry Hart Milman, 1846

(Project Gutenberg edition)

“It was Rome, on the fifteenth of October 1764, as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the barefoot friars were singing vespers in the Temple of Jupiter, that the idea of writing the decline and fall of the city first started to my mind.”

Some months ago, in a discussion of “Great Works”, a friend of mine had mentioned that she’d read Gibbon’s “Decline and Fall”. Intrigued, as I was nearing the end of Durant’s “Story of Civilisation”, and looking for something to load onto my mini-tablet for further lunchtime reading, I was pleasantly surprised to find an ePub version of all six volumes available at Project Gutenberg. I quickly downloaded and installed them.

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Book Review: Caesar’s Last Breath

Caesar’s Last Breath
Decoding the Secrets of the Air Around Us
Sam Kean
Little, Brown, and Company
(c) 2017 by the author

In the kingdom of non-fiction books, there’s a land that can be described as “commodity biographies”. Here, the authors take an item or substance of great familiarity, and write about how it has influenced and has been influenced by human history. (e.g Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World by Mark Kurlansky). Given air’s ubiquity, it’s kind of hard to write a biography for it. Kean’s book can be better described as a collection of independent essays that together tell a history of Earth’s atmosphere and our understanding of it.

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Book Review: Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times

Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times
by H.W. Brands
Doubleday
(c) 2005 by the author

The current president likes to compare himself to Andrew Jackson, choosing Jackson’s portrait to hang in the Oval Office. Jackson is going to be removed from the $20 bill, to be replaced by Harriet Tubman. All the hubbub over Jackson has many people in a lather about him; essentially he’s seen as the Anti-Christ for his slave ownership and the “Trail of Tears”.

I thought it might be a good idea, then, to read a biography of our seventh President, and learn something of what all the fuss is about.

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BOOK REVIEW: Time Travel

Time Travel
James Gleick
Pantheon Books
Copyright 2016 by the author

If you were looking for someone who could explain all the ins and outs and forwards and sideways of time travel, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better writer than James Gleick. He’s previously tackled topics like chaos theory and the life and work of Richard Feynman. So a history of the idea of time travel seems like a natural subject for him to present to the average intelligent reader.

Gleick starts by taking us back in time to when H.G. Wells was penning “The Time Machine”. He discusses early drafts of the novel, and mentions some of the problems that reviewers noted – what happens if solid objects are in the space the Traveler is passing through, for one, and how do you account for the fact that the earth is both rotating and moving through space (the latter is one that time travelers always seem to forget).

From there, he moves forward in time through physicists treating time mathematically as a dimension, philosophers grappling with the concept of time, and even lexicographers trying to simply come up with a definition of the term that doesn’t wind up spinning in circles: “Time is what clocks measure”; “A clock is a device for measuring the passage of time.”[1]

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