“The King of Skid Row: John Bacich and the Twilight Years of Old Minneapolis”

James Eli Shiffer

John Bacich, known as “Johnny Rex”, owned a bar, liquor store, and cage hotel in Minneapolis’ infamous “Gateway District” until urban renewal destroyed it in the early 1960s. Shiffer uses his stories and photos, along with contemporary sociological studies, to describe this lost era and place and the men (mostly) who inhabited it.

(This book makes a good companion to “Augie’s Secrets: The Minneapolis Mob and the King of the Hennepin Strip“, whose subject, Augie Ratner, did business only a few blocks — though not in skid row — from Bacich.)

“The Flame Bearer”

Bernard Cornwell

Finally, Cornwell’s aging warrior protagonist Uthred gets his chance to recover Bebbanburg, his ancestral home. This, the sequel to “Warriors of the Storm” is yet another great book in the “Saxon Tales” series.

Shortly before reading this, I tried watching the second season of “The Last Kingdom“, the BBC adaptation of the series. I gave up, partly because it portrayed Uhtred is just too pretty. The TV Uhtred’s flowing locks clashed with my image of books’ tough, scarred hero. Thus I laughed when, in the first two pages of “The Flame Bearer”, Cornwell has Uhtred mocking one of his soldiers for his long hair which, he says, just provides a convenient handle for his enemies.

“The Athenian Trireme: The History and Reconstruction of an Ancient Greek Warship”

John S. Morrison, John F. Coates, and N. B. Rankov

If, like me, you’re the kind of person who will, when visiting Athens, take a side trip to Piraeus to see a reconstructed trireme, you’ll love this book. That ship, the Olympias, is the subject of this book.

The Olympias is a large-scale experimental archaeology project. The exact arrangement of oars and rowers on these ships was a mystery. None of them survive — not even as underwater wrecks — and the few inscriptions and statues that show them are open to many interpretations. The Olympias represents a best-guess about ancient trireme design. Since “The Athenian Trireme” is the second edition of this book — the first having be published before the ship was completed — it includes info about where the modern version’s designers went wrong (resulting in a ship slightly slower than ships in ancient accounts).

The book surveys the evidence about trireme design, the history of their use, the design of the reconstruction, and the results of the reconstruction’s sea trials. It goes into detail about crew size, battle tactics, and performance of these ancient vessels. What surprised me most was the trireme’s ability to accelerate quickly, turn sharply, and stop quickly.

I really liked this book. That probably says something about my level of history geekiness. (By the way, right next to Olympias in Piraeus is the 1907 cruiser Georgios Averof; yes, that was an awesome travel day.)

“Bandersnatch: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the Creative Collaboration of the Inklings”

Diana Pavlac Glyer

There are two groups of writers I always enjoy reading about: the Beats and the Inklings. This book is about the Inklings’ writing processes, especially on the ways they influenced each other. It is interesting, but I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as I enjoyed “The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings” which covers the same ground (and more) in much more detail. In particular, Pavlac Glyer’s attempt to boil down the Inklings’ methods into simple rules of thumb for successful writing is simplistic and not very useful.

(“Bandersnatch” is apparently a popularization of another, more academic, book by the same author: “The Company They Keep: C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien as Writers in Community“. I suspect I’d find the weightier tome more satisfying.)

“Café Neandertal”

Beebe Bahrami

This is a fascinating look at some particular Neandertal researchers and excavations and at the current state of knowledge about Neandertals. Beebe Bahrami conveys the sense of mystery surrounding these humans who aren’t “us” without straying from scientific facts (and theories). It’s striking how much can be learned from the tiny bits of evidence that survive from thousands of years ago.