[ Home page ]
Books I can recommend. (Following the links will take you to Amazon UK, where you can hand over your hard-earned credit card details and buy the works in question. This site is an Amazon partner.) Note that I have not made the remotest attempt to arrange these in any order.
According to the author, this work was not in fact intended as a strictly practical manual; indeed, as the author writes in the preface to the second (1979) edition,
... the only case of actual use [of the book] for which there is firm evidence would make a poor advertisement: the coup in question was at first very successful but then failed, amidst much killing. Its chief protagonist, a defence minister who aspired to yet greater things, was caught and promptly executed. When his house was searched, a heavily annotated copy of the French edition was found in his study....
Nevertheless, Luttwak analyses, on the basis of extensive research and a detailed Appendix (`Table II: Basic List of Coups and Attempted Coups, 1945-78'), the Coup D'Etat as a phenomenon in governments, especially in those regions we are now encouraged to call the Developing World. As he points out, `... the coup is the most frequently attempted method of changing government, and the most successful'; his analysis is interesting, and his prose style witty and engaging.
Beevor conveys some impression of how awful the conditions at Stalingrad must have been, in between an excellent narrative of the (complex) situation surrounding the battle. Frightening and depressing, but very readable.
Autobiographical account of Homer (`Sonny') Hickam's childhood experiences manufacturing ever-larger solid-fuelled rockets. Inspired by Sputnik in 1957, and by the struggles of Wehrner von Braun and the Army Ballistic Missile Agency to build rockets that wouldn't explode on the launch-pad, Hickam and childhood friends form the `Big Creek Missile Agency' and progress from their first efforts (blowing up Hickam's mother's garden fence) to zinc/sulphur-powered rockets reaching altitudes of 15,000 feet.
Set against this is the background of a West Virginia mining town. Hickam's father was the mine superintendent, and Hickam and friends get wound up in the politics of the mine, steel company and trades unions; the faux-naive way in which the political tensions of the community are portrayed is occasionally trite, but interesting nevertheless.
Hickam writes very engagingly, interspersing descriptions of the rockets, with an engaging coming-of-age tale, which is in parts very funny.
Subtitled `How One Man Masterminded the Soviet Drive to Beat America to the Moon', this is a biography of Sergei Korolev, the `Chief Designer' of the Soviet space program who remained virtually anonymous until his funeral in 1966. Korolev was central to the design of almost all Soviet ballistic missiles and space launchers up to the early 1960s, and the book is also a history of these efforts. As such, it includes a final chapter on the development of the space program after Korolev's death.
Harford has clearly done a lot of research into this, and a lot of his material was previously unknown in the West. He comes up with some fascinating gems about the nature of research in the USSR, such as this one from an interview with Efraim Akim about the USSR's decision to build a space shuttle (Buran): (emphasis mine)
When the US Shuttle was announced we started investigating the logic of that approach. Very early our calculations showed that the figures being used by NASA were unrealistic. It would be better to use a series of expendable launch vehicles. Then, when we learned of the decision to build a shuttle launch facility at Vandenburg [Air Force Base, in California] for military purposes we noted that the trajectories from Vandenburg allowed an overflight of the main centers of the USSR on the first orbit. So our hypothesis was that the development of the shuttle was mainly for military purposes....
When we analysed the trajectories from Vandenburg we saw it was possible for any military payload to re-enter from orbit in three and a half minutes to the main missile centers of the USSR, a much shorter time than [a missile submarine] could make possible....
Have you noticed how the word `intellectual' is used nowadays? There seems to be a new definition which certainly doesn't include Rutherford or Eddington or Dirac or Adrian or me. It does seem rather odd, don't y'know.
(G. H. Hardy, a remark to Snow quoted in The Two Cultures.)
Snow's description of the fragmentation of modern cultural experience into the humanities and the sciences is essential reading.
Gleick's biography of Richard Feynman is fascinating (and a useful counterpoint to Feynman's own books). It also contains the answer to the Feynman Water Sprinkler Question.
(If you aren't familiar with it, the question goes something like this:
Consider a lawn sprinkler of the sort which sprays water from the two hooked ends of a short, S-shaped piece of tubing when water is pumped into the tube from its midpoint, and which is free to rotate about an axis through the midpoint and perpendicular to the water flow. In normal operation the sprinkler will rotate in a particular direction, say clockwise, owing to the orientation of its ends. If the sprinkler is submerged and water pumped out of it, in which direction will it turn?
This is a good test of physical intuition, which you ought to be able to answer without resorting to Gleick's book. Also note that Feynman -- who relates how he tried to answer it by experiment, with disastrous results, in his autobiographical work Surely You're Joking, Mister Feynman -- never gave away the answer himself.)
Tuchman structures this very diverting narrative of 1300 -- 1450 around the life of Enguerard de Coucy, one of the most respected French noblemen of the time. Eventually killed on Crusade, de Coucy undertook an enormous variety of activities, both military and -- as he became more politically astute -- diplomatic. Following his life, we learn about the background of the 14th century -- of plague and war, chivalry and dishonour, plague and battle.
Massie's account of the coming of the First World War, centering around the Anglo-German naval rivalry and its political consequences, is fascinating for its detail and brilliant character sketches.
Jones, who had an extremely senior position in British Scientific Intelligence during the Second World War, waited until the late 1970s to write this account of his activities, by which time much of the most secret material (such as the breaking of the `Enigma' and `Lorentz' cryptosystems) had become public knowledge. Jones's book is detailed, containing many entertaining anecdotes, and is extremely readable.
From reading it, one would get the impression that Jones won the War single handedly; this is not accurate, but is probably a reasonable line for an autobiography to take given the enormous contributions he undoubtedly made.
A bit too technical for me, but broadly interesting; Gordon's book examines the history of the Royal Navy in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and tries to explain the poor performance of the Grand Fleet at Jutland in 1916. Gordon's thesis seems to be that the naval commanders of the late Victorian period stifled initiative at all tactical levels, resulting in an organisation which was unable to fight effectively; instead, admirals such as Jellicoe relied on detailed signalling to the ships under their command -- an approach doomed to failure in the confusion of battle with the available technology.
Gordon writes well, is rather opinionated and can be very snide at times:
[John Dalton, tutor to Victoria's sons George and Edward] `possessed a resonant voice and much enjoyed listening to it', and his published volume of Sermons to Naval Cadets would cast a gloom over anyone's day in the British Library....
[Referring to the recording of navigation logs in HMS New Zealand] Thus we have one track-chart for New Zealand's upper bridge where [Rear-Admiral] Pakenham, his flag-lieutenant and Captain Green spent the action, and one for her conning tower where the navigating officer... [was] stationed. By... 4.40 Princess Royal has only steamed 11 miles, whereas New Zealand's conning tower has gone twice as far. At 5 o'clock we find Princess Royal 10.5 miles from New Zealand's navigator, who now is estranged from the people upstairs by 4.5 miles....
Overall, the book is an interesting (and at times amusing) read; an interesting adjunct to Massie's Dreadnought.
Ziegler's account of the coming of the Plague in medieval Europe is widely considered a classic, and reading this well-constructed little book will make you profoundly grateful for the existence of modern medical science.
Not confined narrowly to the Manhattan Project and Los Alamos, Rhodes's authoritative history describes the people, ideas, and background to the development of nuclear energy, taking in much material on what might be termed the `morality of warfare'.
Subtitled `The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance', this book is hated by a medievalist of my acquaintance -- largely, so far as I can tell, because it portrays the Dark Ages as not being Very Nice. (It has to be said that Manchester's view of the medieval period is now a little out of date.)
Nevertheless, the book is interesting and, as a tool for irritating the serious historian of the period, invaluable.
Archie: ... winners like North Vietnam?
Otto: We did not lose Vietnam! It was a tie!
(From A Fish Called Wanda.)
It took Sheehan longer to write this book about the war in Vietnam than the Americans took to lose it. Sheehan's book explores in detail the blundering and incompetence of the South Vietnamese government and army, and that of the US personnel sent to defend their country. At times we get the impression that Vann -- a US Army officer who made the war in Vietnam his life and was killed there shortly before the final withdrawal -- was the only competent individual in the whole mess; this impression might not actually be far from the truth. Throughout the book is the impression of impending catastrophe, created as much by the author's relentless description of the failings of the participants as by the reader's knowledge of the final outcome.
The basic thesis of this work could be summed up in the single word `no', but Wood's research (essentially, comparing Polo's account of his travel with what the Far East was really like at the time) is detailed and fascinating. (The conclusion, basically, is that Polo scribbled away based on rumour and hearsay, whilst in gaol on his return from an unsuccessful trading expedition to the Black Sea. On his return home -- after a long absence -- he made a pile of money from the book, which was an instant best-seller.)
Something of a must-read, Taylor's conclusions will probably be forever controversial -- and probably, as he complained in his 1963 Foreword, misunderstood:
... I wrote of the Munich agreement: ``It was a triumph for all that was best and most enlightened in British life; a triumph for those who had preached equal justice between peoples; a triumph for those who had courageously denounced the harshness and short-sightedness of Versailles.'' I ought perhaps to have added ``goak here'' in the manner of Artemus Ward. It was not however altogether a joke....
... I have however no sympathy with those in [Britain] who complained that my book had been welcomed, mistakenly or not, by former supporters of Hitler. This seems to me a disgraceful argument to be used against a work of history. A historian must not hesitate even if his books lend aid and comfort to the Queen's enemies (though mine did not), or even to the common enemies of mankind. For my part, I would even record facts which told in favour of the British government, if I found any to record (goak again).
Detailed and with many fascinating anecdotes.
McPhee, a journalist, writes of his conversations with Ted Taylor, a nuclear physicist and bomb designer who, in his own words, was `the first person to discover you could design nuclear bombs freehand'. This book was, perhaps, the first to elucidate fears about nuclear terrorism which are now current; but it was written in the 1970s, before the collapse of the Soviet Union which triggered the present nuclear panic.
Although the background to the book -- expected massive growth in the nuclear energy industry -- has not come to pass, and the associated dangers of fuel transport and storage may be less than feared then, Taylor's warning is still very interesting, and at points alarming.
This peculiar and affecting book follows the career of (fictional) Doctor Victor Jakob, a professor of theoretical physics at a German university during the First World War. Jakob, elderly and struggling with the decline of his beloved classical physics, is also confused and perhaps horrified by the spectre of the War, unfamiliar even in the light of his own experiences in the German Army in 1870.
McCormach skillfully weaves together his account of Jakob and his reaction to the coming of the Quantum Theory, writing him into the real history of the phsics of the period, and draws parallels with the First World War which brought about the end of the old European order. Simultaneously, the Professor, reaching the end of his life, is being eclipsed by his younger and more brilliant colleagues who are readier to embrace the new physics.
This complex subject is handled subtly and authoritatively by an author who writes well on the social and scientific history which makes up the background to the narrative.
Put your stuff on the web. Competently. See also How to be a `web' `designer'. This book is also available (of course!) on-line, at http://photo.net/wtr/thebook/.
Brooks's classic contains much in terms of the difficulties of managing software engineering projects (and quite a lot on the difficulties of actually doing software engineering projects!). He sums it up with pithy conclusions -- `Men and months are not interchangeable' -- and peppers it with observations, some now obsolete -- `... on [a 1960s-vintage IBM mainframe], memory rents for about $12 per kilobyte per month.... One frequently hears horror expressed that a 2 megabyte machine may have 400 kilobytes devoted to its operating system.' -- and others which will presumably never be obsolete -- `It is a very humbling experience to make a multimillion-dollar mistake, but it is also very memorable.'
Almost as interesting as the original essays from the 1975 edition is his analysis (in the 20th anniversary edition) of where he was wrong when he first wrote them.
Cringely, who has been (in his own description) an `IT Industry Gossip Columnist' for many years now, writes an entertaining, though hardly unbiased, account of the computer industry through the 1980s. Memorable images include his description of Bill Gates, drunk and stuck up a cactus he had climbed after-hours at a Las Vegas trade show.
A journalist's account of the design of a new 32-bit minicomputer for Data General, considered a classic of non-specialist literature on computing and certainly very readable. Kidder does an excellent job on the (highly technical) topics in the book, and paints an interesting (often unflattering) picture of the individuals involved in the project.
Adapted from the classic television series, these books are written in the form of the diaries of Jim Hacker, MP, annotated by `editors' Lynn and Jay with excerpts from the diaries of the other characters (Sir Humphrey Appleby etc.) and interviews with Bernard Wooley (who, we learn, has eventually risen to the position of Cabinet Secretary).
Almost as brilliant as the television programmes themselves, these adaptations suffer from over-zealous explanatory notes by the `editors', but these are easy enough to filter out when reading the books, and do not detract enormously from the adaptation.
``We only found out about the escape at 6:30 the next morning when one of the prisoners told us,'' a warder said later.
(`The Worst Prison Guards', from The Book of Heroic Failures.)
Apparently no longer available (Amazon UK seem only to stock an abridged version intended for teaching English as a Foreign Language, while Amazon USA reports them as being out of print), these books are an extremely entertaining account of human failure in all its manifold forms, ranging from `The Worst Driver' to `The Worst Submarine', via `The Worst Seduction' and `The Worst Actor'. Well worth looking through a for-real bookshop for.
I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to.
(From The Lost Continent.)
Bryson's trio of humourous travelogues, taking in respectively the United States (his home country), Europe and the UK, are enormously funny; although they will do nothing to improve your opinion of the inhabitants of the places he visits, they are laugh-out-loud funny in many places. Well worth a read. (Bryson is more scholarly than you might guess, and the books are very well researched. Especially incongruous is the section in Neither Here Nor There where, in his account of travelling through the great cities of old Europe, he cheerfully quotes casualty statistics from Ziegler's The Black Death in between complaining about trains, hotels, and the experiences of being pick-pocketed in Italy.)
Saki's short stories (available in several editions; also, some are on-line: do a search on Google or something) are funny, and often rather dark. (An unhelpful summing up given by a friend of mine was, ``They are all about death.''). His work is eminently quotable:
[After encountering a friendly hyaena whilst hunting in the English countryside....]
``What are we to do?'' asked Constance
``What a person you are for questions,'' I said.
``Well, we can't stay all night here with a hyaena,'' she retorted.
``I don't know what your ideas of comfort are,'' I said, ``but I shouldn't think of staying here even without a hyaena....''
[Major Dumbarton and Emily Carewe, meeting by chance aboard ship, have resumed an old romance. The only barrier to marriage would appear to be the unlucky baker's dozen of children they have acquired in their previous marriages.]
Em.: Isn't there some way by which we could part with one or two? Don't the French want more children? I've often seen articles about it in the Figaro.
Maj.: I fancy they want French children. Mine don't even speak French.
Em.: There's always a chance one of them might turn out depraved and vicious, and then you could disown him. I've heard of that being done.
Maj.: But, good gracious, you've got to educate him first. You can't expect a boy to be vicious until he's been to a good school.
(From The Baker's Dozen.)
The stories are all set in and around the upper and upper-middle classes of Edwardian England. Surprisingly to a modern reader in view of his cynicism, Saki, like most of the young men of his time, was an ardent patriot (see, for example, his admittedly forgettable novel When William Came, described as a `pro-war fantasy' -- of Wilhelm II's armies invading, then annexing, Britain). He joined the Army in 1914, and turned down a commission and a translating job away from the front. He was killed in 1916 at Beaumont Hammel in northern France.
... At dusk that day we stood by the side of another road, where we had been told we would have a good view, and watched as the world's rarest fruitbats left their roost and flapped across the darkening sky to make their nightly forage among the fruit trees.
The bats are doing just fine. There are hundreds of them.
I have a terrible feeling that we are in trouble.
(From Last Chance to See, describing the conclusion of an expedition to see a Rodrigues fruitbat, the world's rarest.)
This book, part-travelogue, part-natural history, describes Adams and Carwardine's journeys to see a variety of endangered species in their natural habitats. Adams, as ever, is very funny, but the humour is mixed with considerable erudition and a real sense of horror at the creeping erosion of biodiversity.
Copyright (c) 1999 Chris Lightfoot. All rights reserved.