“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.

“The Last Ship”

William Brinkley

After a nuclear war only one ship, a US destroyer, remains. Its crew — consisting of about six times as many men as women — is faced with finding a safe home and with the prospect of restarting the human race. And then a Russian submarine shows up.

This one was hard to put down. The situation is interesting and the characters are believable. Brinkley effectively makes the reader feel the tragedy of the world ending. Reminiscent of the little-known but very memorable “Down to a Sunless Sea” as well as the similar but much older “On the Beach“, “The Last Ship” should be on everyone’s post-apocalyptic reading list.

(I did look at the trailer for the TV version of “The Last Ship”, which seems to have very little to do with the book other than the fact that they both have a ship.)

“The Long Death”

Ralph K. Andrist

I bought a copy of this book years (OK, decades) ago and it’s been sitting on my shelf ever since. I packed it for trips out West several times. This year I packed it once again, telling myself that if I didn’t read it on this trip I’d get rid of it. Well, I finally read it and… it’s a great book I should have read years (or decades) ago.

“The Long Death” covers the history of Native American and white military interaction from Minnesota’s U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 to the Wounded Knee Massacre in South Dakota in 1890. It has a nice balance between the big picture and local details.

The thing that distinguishes this book is its evenhandedness. While the US was clearly the aggressor, and is portrayed as such, the book doesn’t gloss over the faults of the Native Americans.

“The Long Ships”

Frans G. Bengtsson

This epic tale of Viking adventure set in the 10th century is full of what J. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis called “northerness”. It’s the adventure-filled life of Red Orm Tostesson from his abduction by Vikings in his youth to his old age. The action ranges from Scania to Denmark, Ireland, England, Andalusia, and Kievan Rus. It was first published in Sweden in the 1941 and, unlike in so many more recent historical novels, the characters are convincingly of their time.

“The Long Ships” is a good, solid, sonorous, satisfying read.