Archive for the ‘reading’ Category

Cover of Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and WarningIf you took World History in high school, your experience was probably like mine: the course was miles wide and only about an inch deep. This has everything to do with the amount of material that has to be covered, even over the course of an entire academic year. Therefore, I found Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning an excellent read. As the title indicates, this Timothy Snyder work covers one of the worst times in the history of our world.

This is a hard read because it is information dense. I’ve made a note to myself to go back through this book and take more elaborate notes for review and comparison because there’s just that much. However, it is definitely worth the read because Snyder covers so much that isn’t covered in typical history courses nor in most video programs on the Holocaust. For instance, right from the start Snyder traces the ideology of Hitler and the Nazi party as a whole. Certain key ideas go all the way back to Germany’s former colonization of Africa and some of the actions of Hitler and Germany mirror actions from that previous time. Another example is an exploration of why Poland should have been Germany’s ally and not the Soviet Union. Snyder then covers the events and differences in the beliefs about the state which led to the opposite, with Stalin initially being Hitler’s ally and Germany’s invasion of Poland.
One of the interesting perspectives reinforced in the early part of the book is how much of Germany’s actions (and Hitler’s thinking) was about land. My old American History instructor used to tie most of America’s actions to a pursuit of more land. It was so common a theme (think Manifest Destiny) that she would often exclaim, “Land!” when discussing motivations. For instance, the Louisiana Purchase was about land. Jefferson struggled with it because he couldn’t find anything in the US Constitution which specifically gave the President the authority to make such an acquisition, but the deal was just too good to pass up! And in reality, the colonization of America in general was about land. Hitler saw a need for the expansion of Germany for more farmland and his ideology was completely fine with the idea of seizing that land from the “lesser race” even if that meant their complete extermination. The parallels to America are not accidental because Hitler saw what the USA did to Native American tribes, both through warfare and by forced exile to west of the Mississippi River, as an example of how Germany should act. And in Hitler’s mind, there was Germany (and possibly England and the USA) and there was everyone else. The everyone else had no rights, not even to life, and definitely no ownership over resources if Germans needed/wanted them.
If I have a complaint, it’s found in the Epilogue (titled Conclusion: Our World). There the author tries to link climate change with a recurrence of events leading up to and including the Holocaust because a leader will be able to spin similar ideology as Hitler did. Logically, this doesn’t follow. That a shortage of resources or perceived need might lead to such a dictator is not only plausible but we’ve seen that played out numerous times in history. However, such a leader doesn’t need Global Warming to generate that lack of resources. One only has to look at situations like Burma/Myanmar or North Korea today to see that. Also, if the concern is about food, there’s that general concern as the population of the planet increases. This is a concern regardless if Global Warming forecasts are correct.
Would I recommend this book? Yes, I would. The complaint aside, there’s a wealth of information found in this one source that goes beyond what most folks know about the history of the Holocaust. There’s that old maxim, “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it,” and with something as horrid as the Holocaust, we don’t want to repeat those series of events again. Looking at what led up to the Holocaust allows us to build defenses and warnings for events which might cause us to follow a similar road. Therefore, Snyder’s Black Earth is worth the read.
Note: I received a free review copy of this book.

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Cover for Breaking the Chains of GravityAre you interested in the history of the US space program? Do you know the history of it prior to NASA? That’s what Amy Shira Teitel covers in Breaking the Chains of Gravity: The Story of Spaceflight Before NASA. It is a fascinating read with a timeline that will likely surprise you if you’re not already familiar with the roots of the famed space program.

Teitel starts off in Germany. Why Germany? The truth of the matter is that much of the successes in the early space program were due to technology based on the German V-2 rockets. Yes, the very same ones the Germans launched against Great Britain in WWII. Not only did we use captured German technology, but many of the leaders in the US space program were former Nazi scientists like Werner Von Braun.

Teitel covers Von Braun’s motivations well as well as several other key participants in Germany’s rocket program. Military use of rocketry was something they were forced into due to the times. And membership in the Nazi party was a requirement for survival in a fascist regime. Therefore, when the war came to an end, the scientists involved and any information on the technology around the V-2, especially spare parts, were high priority acquisitions. That’s effectively what they became as the USA, the USSR, and Great Britain all vied to get at the men and materiel.

Then Teitel delves into the next plodding steps of the US space program: not knowing what to do with the Germans, the test flights with the X-1 aircraft (which was used to break the sound barrier), the conflicting priorities, the infighting between the military services, and the shock when the USSR launched its first two rockets into space. As is pointed out elsewhere, any of these subjects could and have warranted books of themselves, but Teitel delivers a nice summary in a storytelling style that connects the pieces together. She finally ends the narrative with the formation of NASA from so many disparate parts and its first few steps as the center of US space research.

I enjoyed Breaking the Chains of Gravity greatly and would recommend it to anyone who has a thirst for space, for NASA, and for how science advances in the applied realm. It’s not a quick read. There are a lot of facts, a lot of agencies, and a lot of separate initiatives to keep track of, especially in the last one third of the book. This reflects the historic complexity and, for lack of a better word, mess that represented the US space program prior to NASA. If you happen to be a homeschooling family, this would be an excellent addition to any study of space and the US efforts in that arena.

Note: I received a pre-release copy of the book for review.

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For 2013, I set a goal to read more for pleasure. This meant reading a lot more fiction. I read a lot every day due to work. However, these tend to be technical articles or blog posts. I also set a goal to read more of the top rated science fiction novels that have been written. Basically, I hit several lists and picked books to explore.

Here’s my list, with a bit of arbitrary groupings. Links are to Amazon in case any catch your fancy.

The Sword of Truth Series

On a recommendation from a friend, I delved into the first four books of the Sword of Truth Series by Terry Goodkind. They are excellent novels that I enjoyed greatly. The series continues and I hope to read more in 2014.

The Hunger Games Series

I read the series and then happened on the Japanese movie Battle Royale and was struck with the similarities. I can see why some folks hated this series at the end: it doesn’t have that Hollywood happy ending. However, given the events during the course of the series, I certainly expected how things turned out.

The Saxon Chronicles

I love Bernard Cornwell as an author. I had read The Last Kingdom during 2012 and wanted to get closer to completing the books he has written thus far in this series.

Richard Sharpe’s Adventure Series

Another Bernard Cornwell series, this one follows Richard Sharpe through the Napoleonic War. I happened upon 12 books at a used book store, recognized the author, and grabbed the books. It was a great investment. However, I found it at the end of the year, so I’ve not had time to get through the books I have. The series wasn’t written chronologically, and I’m going based on the Penguin Books numbering. If you want to read them chronologically, check at Mr. Cornwell’s site.

The Earthsea Cycle

The first book began as an experiment by Ursula K. Le Guin to see if she could write for the youth age group. Needless to say, she was successful. Again, another series I have started and look forward to reading more of.

Chronicles of The Black Company

Glenn Cook was on a lot of science fiction/fantasy lists for his Black Company series. The first two books are definitely grim and gritty. I’ll likely be completing the series in 2014.

The Dresden Files

I originally ran across the SyFy channel series on Netflix and it hooked my interest. Knowing the books are usually better (and different) from their screen adaptations, I began reading Jim Butcher’s series.

The Forever Series

There are three books in the series by Joe Haldeman, however, the second one is set in the universe of the other two but isn’t directly connected. I really enjoyed The Forever War. I thought the way Mr. Haldeman ended Forever Peace was a bit contrived.

Other Fantasy/Science Fiction Books

These are in no particular order. Some are part of a series (The White Dragon and Stormdancer, for instance), however, I only read one book of that series in 2013. Many came from those top lists.

Other Fiction Books

I read (or re-read) some of these because they are considered classics. Others just struck my fancy or were recommended by a friend or family member.

Personal Development Books

Given that I follow a lot of blogs, I didn’t do as much reading in this area in 2013.

Faith Books

Technical Books

I received this one for review. It’s an excellent book if you administer Microsoft SQL Server.

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Making Time for Fiction

Reading fiction provides relaxation and down time. Timothy Ferriss of The 4-Hour Workweek fame wrote that he read fiction for 30 minutes before going to bed. This helps relax him.  When I did my end of the year review in December, I realized that I had done a lot of reading for my profession, for professional and personal development, and for ministry/theology. I hadn’t spent a lot of time reading fiction. At first I didn’t much about it, but over the next few days I realized that reading fiction provided:

  • A brief escape from the roles and responsibilities I carry.
  • An opportunity to use my imagination and dream.
  • A way of looking at the world in a different manner.
  • A chance to consider what I’d do in each character’s shoes.

Dune by Frank HerbertFor instance, the book I just finished reading was Dune by Frank Herbert. It’s a science fiction classic, but it’s one I never had gotten around to reading. A friend and former co-worker of mine loves the whole Dune series. He had been recommending it to me for years. I had put it off because I always had “something more important to read.” Now I wish I had read it earlier. There are a lot of neat ideas in it. It’s a book that has plots within plots. And there’s an enormous amount of detail. It certainly kept my attention.

Since I have read it, it opens the doorway to continue in the series. I likely will try to read the rest by the end of the year. I did the same with Terry Goodkind’s Wizard’s First Rule, which is another book and another series (The Sword of Truth series) that I’ve had recommended to me. I can see why it has sold as well as it has and why that series has fans who re-read the novels over and over again. I’ve knocked off the first four books in the Sword of Truth series and the author’s point of view has given me some things to think about. He’s an objectivist, and his philosophy differs from mine in some key areas. The differences are worth examining. I can do so through the actions of Goodkind’s characters. That’s something that reading fiction affords me rather well.

If you haven’t set aside time in your schedule or your reading list this year for some fiction, consider doing so. If you don’t do it for any other reason, consider doing it right before sleep in order to relax you and to give your mind a break from the stress and strain of the day. I would also urge you to pick up some fiction in order to explore new ideas and to dream. Think about where we are in science and technology today and how much of those ideas were first born in the books of science fiction.

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Review: Ruins by Orson Scott Card

Ruins coverRuins is the second book in the Pathfinder trilogy by Orson Scott Card. It does not stand on its own; you will have needed to read Pathfinder first to understand a lot of what goes on in this novel. With that said, it’s a very different book from its predecessor.

In Ruins, dialogue dominates. There is a significant amount of back and forth between the main characters and those they interact with. There is very little “action.” It reminds me a lot of the recent Japanese anime, Blast of Tempest. The characters can effectively stay in the same place for a good number of pages talking back and forth, usually in heated discussions. If a lot of dialogue is not for you, it’s probably best for you to stop reading after Pathfinder.

With that said, there are a lot of intricacies in the relationships between the main characters as well as between them and the “humans” and automatons they interact with through the course of the novel. I can’t say more without giving away spoilers, but I can say that a good portion of the novel deals with the questions, “Who can I trust?” and “What can I trust?”

Given that several of the main characters are in their early teens at the start of the novel, we do see them maturing and developing, yet also acting like the juveniles that they are. The adults that are with them do their best to offer advice and guide them to see when they are acting foolishly without belittling them or tearing them down. It’s a nice dynamic because, as you might guess, the “kids” hold the key to the future for them all.

As an avid reader of Orson Scott Card’s work, I definitely enjoyed the book. I also happen to like dialogue and therefore was pleased with the amount of it in Ruins. As I said earlier, if a lot of dialogue is not your sort of read, this is definitely a book to pass on. Ruins is very representative of his work: complex, dealing a great deal with questions about ethics and morality, and solidly in the science fiction genre. I would definitely recommend the book with the proviso already given.


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Review: World War Z

Let’s face it: the undead are popular. A few friends of mine avidly talk about what to do in the event of a real zombie apocalypse. They keep up to date on the latest fictional offerings and compare it to the body of knowledge they’ve already accumulated through “careful study.” That’s what led me to request World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War from my local library. I was not disappointed.

As you might guess, the book isn’t your standard fictional novel. Instead, it’s written in an interview style where the “author” picks the brains (pun intended) of some folks and key players who withstood and overcame the near zombie apocalypse. The interviews are presented in a chronological format with the first set of interviews discussing the initial outbreaks and reactions by those affected, followed by interviews covering what people experienced as the zombie menace built up to full strength, then working its way through humanity turning the tide to where it ended up after “victory” was declared. It’s a fun way to present yet another zombie story, and because he wrote it in an interview format, you’re constantly changing points of view, keeping things fresh and interesting.

One of the things I liked about this fictional book is it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Brooks created some interesting characters, the kinds that would be interviewed if we ever did have and survive a zombie apocalypse and it’s fun to delve into the minds of these characters through the interview process. And while there was definitely research that went into the writing of this book, it’s light on historical facts and technical details so that the characters’ stories are at the forefront. It does play a bit on stereotypes, like how we’d expect Russia or China to react, but that’s also part of what helps one immerse in the book and the story being unfolded.

If you’re looking for a good fiction book to read for relaxation, this is a fine choice. It’s not an endlessly detailed book and while there are some bits that will cause you to stop and think, it’s not a book that beats you over the head with social issues (though he does present plenty of them in a way that exposes some of their absurdity) or has you following closely to try and pick up all the clues to try and figure out who the murderer was. It’s not a serious book by any means, and I found myself laughing out loud at some portions, especially as I considered that’s what I’d expect the person to do in that situation, even if it was obviously the wrong choice.

On the other hand, if you’re looking for details on how to survive a zombie apocalypse this isn’t the book for you. You’re not going to pick up survival techniques or strategies for staying alive, though I’m not sure why you’d actively be looking for such.

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Library!I was recently having a conversation with a co-worker about the public library near our work. I had to take some library books back and he went along for the walk. After I dropped off the books at the return, I showed him around the building, pointing out the various resources. He was amazed. Libraries had changed greatly from when he was back in school. I then recalled I had a similar conversation with some other folks I worked with who also didn’t realize how much the library had to offer. For instance, my particular public library offers these in addition to the regular physical books:

I won’t  go into detail on the classes and groups that meet, everything from sewing to how to build your resume. Altogether, libraries today provide a whole lot more resources than they used to. As technology evolves, most libraries have strove to embrace these technologies because they (a) reduce cost and (b) provide more services. Often times these library resources are free.

When you’re looking to develop and grow yourself, check out what your local library has for you. As you build your reading list, you can save money if the book you want to read is in your library. But what if your library doesn’t have it?

Interlibrary Loan:

Even if it’s not, there’s a not-so-secret service called Interlibrary Loan. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s where you can request your library borrow the book you want from a library it has an agreement with. Often times you’ll be asked to fill out a form that indicates:

  • How long you’re willing to wait to get the book
  • If you’re willing to pay to offset the cost of shipping the book
  • How long you’ll need the book

Most of the time you can get books for a few dollars as the holding library sends it to yours. So if your library doesn’t have a particular book, chances are that a library it has an agreement with does and you get obtain a copy that way. This is especially true of books that more folks request or books that you’d expect an academic library to hold. Work-related books dealing with communication skills, productivity, performance, and career planning are typically easy to get this way. However, you’d be surprised as what a library can get if you’re waiting to wait a little while. I can remember back in my high school days I was learning to play the King’s Gambit. However, there wasn’t much literature on chess, much less a specific topic like a chess opening, at my local library. I used interlibrary loan to get two newly published books on the subject and then was able to use that knowledge at my first chess tournament. If esoteric books like  books on a chess opening that has fallen into disfavor at the professional level can be found, chances are books from your reading list can be, too.

Joining Another Library:

But what if your library isn’t all that great? It’s not unusual to see libraries accept members from out of its region. My library does this for a modest fee of $65 a year. Folks from neighboring counties, especially technology folks, have made use of this because their county libraries don’t offer nearly as many amenities. And $65/year through my library is far below the cost of the equivalent service level at Safari Books if they were to pay directly, meaning they have access to a constantly updating technical library for that low price.

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