Category Archives: Nonfiction

“Preparing For Your Active Life After Retirement: A Guide to The Most Exciting Journey of Your Life, The One That Takes Place After Retirement”

Bob Lowry

A little over three years ago I wrote a blog entry about Bob Lowry’s book “Living A Satisfying Retirement“. Now I’ve been retired just under two years and I’ve just read another of his books. I can see where this one would help someone approaching retirement. As for me, it’s helped me to take stock and given me some things to think about.

(Note in my earlier review I said his blog, “Satisfying Retirement” was no longer being updated. Currently it is being updated and I recommend it highly, not least for the quality of the moderated comments.)

“Some Vernacular Railroad Photographs”

Jeffrey Brouws

After a good introductory essay on collecting, railroads, and photography, Brouws presents vernacular photos of trains, railroaders, and the railroad landscape. The black and white photos, which range from the early 20th century to the early 1960s, were taken by raifans, railroad employees, and that most prolific of artists, “anonymous”. There’s a lot of variety in the collection, and a lot of quality.

“Troy and Homer”

Joachim Latacz

I enjoyed this book about the references to Troy (modern Hisarlik, Turkey) in contemporary documents (Hittite tablets, etc.) and the internal evidence in the Iliad for the antiquity of the story (names used that were antique even in Homer’s day, for example). Despite its deliberate and methodical pace it’s a fascinating book. Latacz makes a good case that the Iliad — written around 800 BC — contains elements that predate Homer and that it’s plausible that the city known as Wilusa to the Hittites was invaded by Greeks circa 1300 BC. I do wish that there was more in the book about the identification of the Troy VII layer at Hisarlik with the Troy of the Trojan War; Latacz does write about Manfred Korfman’s thesis that Troy VII is part of a larger city than previously thought.

“The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire”

Kyle Harper

This is one of the best non-fiction books I’ve read in a long time. Harper synthesizes the latest climate, archaeological, and DNA research to tell the story of the influence of disease and climate on the fall of Rome. He avoids the trap of saying climate or disease “caused” the fall. He does claim that they weakend the empire and that at some point they combined with political factors to rob it of its resilience. He also points out how an earlier benign climate, specifically the “Roman Climate Optimum” from 250 BC to 450 AD contributed to the success of the Roman Empire.

The breadth of this book is remarkable; I learned new (to me) things about history, geology, climatology, astronomy, and biology. But he never ignores the human factors of fails to focus on how climate and disease affected individuals as well as the empire.

“An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic”

Daniel Mendolsohn

This is an engaging memoir about a classics professor and his father. The father takes the son’s class in “The Odyssey” and they subsequently take an Odyssey-themed Mediterranean cruise. Mendelsohn presents his relationship with his dad in counterpoint to that of Ulysses and his son Telemachus.

Mendolsohn’s refusal to use quotation marks is an irritating affectation. Despite that, I liked the book, both as a memoir and as a book about Homer’s epic.

“Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea”

Robert K. Massie

I like battleships. The older the better. I really enjoyed Massie’s previous book on the subject, “Dreadnought: Britain, Germany, and the Coming of the Great War” So this book should be right in my wheelhouse (or conning tower). But it was a huge disappointment.

The book plods, it relies way too much on participants’ self-justifying after-war memoirs (especially Churchill’s), and it barely mentions anyone below the rank of captain. It reads like a book that was written to fulfill a contract rather than because of the author’s passion for the subject (unlike “Dreadnought”).

“Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe”

Kapka Kassabova

This book is about the border region where Bulgaria, Greece, and Turkey meet. It’s more reportage than travelogue and though I prefer the structure of the travelogue (e.g., “Where the West Ends” on a similar topic) I learned a lot from the book even if I didn’t care for Kassabova’s impressionistic/anecdotal approach.

These borderlands are an interesting area with a bloody, tragic history where refugees mix with people holding on to rural ways of life in the face of urbanization and assaults on the environment and where former border guards live with the memories of people they killed or captured who were trying to escape Communism. It’s also a region whose population has been churned by various forced migrations, ethnic cleansing, and coerced religious conversions.

(Hat tip and thanks to Homer’s Travels for making me aware of this book.)

“All the Pieces Matter: The Inside Story of The Wire”

Jonathan Abrams

This is a collection of interviews with the creators, cast, and crew of The Best TV Show Ever Made. It’s interesting reading for a fan of the show (I’ve watched the entire series twice), but it is just a collection of interviews, interviews that sometimes contradict each other and are of varying quality.

I liked it for what it was, and appreciated it as a chance to see how a collaborative work is made, but would have enjoyed it more had the author provided more of his own reporting and interpretation.

“Attack of the 50 Foot Blockchain”

David Gerard

This is an entertainingly skeptical look at Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. It’s the story of naive libertarians basing “currency” (yeah, right) on dodgy software architectures. What could go wrong?

The best way to summarize the book is to quote a couple of paragraphs from the conclusion:

The one constant is: new ideas in finance bring new starry-eyed naïfs, and new predators. New technologies will keep being used as an excuse to put an extra layer of flim-flam over old scams, in an ongoing historical reenactment of the reasons for each and every financial regulation.

Everything to do with cryptocurrencies and blockchains is the domain of fast-talking conmen. If anyone tries to sell you on either, … run.