I do not intend to continue posting these “Books I Didn’t Review” article with the frequency I’ve been doing so lately. But this summer I’ve been enjoying reading books outside of the Christian genre and I’ve been read a lot of them. It has been a refreshing break for me. I’ve still been enjoying at least one Christian book per week, but my recreational reading has taken me far and wide. In Canada we have a bookstore chain called Indigo, headed by Heather Reisman. She offers lists of “Heather’s Picks” and the beauty of it is, if you buy the book and don’t like it, you can return it, no questions asked. So I have been gleaning from her list (skipping over the many novels she recommends), browsing through other lists, and reading a variety of books.
Here are some of the titles I’ve enjoyed:
Tears in the Darkness by Michael Norman and Elizabeth M. Norman. In the first four months of 1942 American and Filipino soldiers fought a long and brutal battle for the tiny Philippine peninsula of Bataan. The battle ended with the surrender of 76,000 Americans and Filipinos, the worst defeat in American history. After the battle these men were subjected to unbelievable cruelty that began with a long, forced march across Bataan to a prison camp. The soldiers who survived this march, ravaged by tropical diseases, were starved and beaten and worked to death as slave labor. Thousands died. Those who endured would never be the same. Tears in the Darkness, a current New York Times bestseller, focuses on the story of the Bataan Death March and its aftermath. It takes Ben Steele, a young American soldier, as its protagonist, and looks primarily through his eyes. The book is unique in that it does not end with the liberation of the prisoners but with the trial and conviction of the Japanese officer deemed responsible for much of the cruelty and deprivation. The authors have constructed an absolutely fascinating account of this part of the war and this is a must-read for anyone with an interest in the Second World War. Because the book focuses on one central character, its appeal will go much further, though, to anyone who would want to marvel at the unimaginable torture a human can endure with nothing but the will to live to sustain him. This is one of this summer’s must-read books!
Prisoner of Tehran by Marina Nemat. This memoir comes from Marina Nemat, who was born and raised in Iran but, surprisingly, as a Roman Catholic. In 1982, at just sixteen years old, she was arrested on false charges by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and thrown into the notorious Evin prison. There she was tortured and condemned to die for her supposed acts of sedition. But in a rather remarkable twist, her life was spared by a prison guard and interrogator who pleaded for her life because he had fallen in love with her and desired to marry her. Nemat is a bold protagonist who refuses to sell out her mind by believing all the lies told to her, yet she is human enough to surrender when stubbornness might cost her life. The conflict that rages in her heart and mind throughout her imprisonment is fascinating. She also offers a insider’s perspective on the radical transformation that occurred within Iran before, during and after the Islamic revolution. This book has the kind of characters and plot twists that seem more at home in fiction than fact. Yet it is a true story, or so Nemat claims. It seemed to me that the story fit together just a little bit too well and I began to wonder if perhaps the author had taken some liberties with the facts. A search of the internet revealed some controversy to that end with accusations flying both ways. Regardless, whether it is read as fact or a blend of fact and fiction, this was a Heather’s Pick that I enjoyed thoroughly. It makes for an excellent “evening or two” kind of read.
The First Tycoon by T.J. Stiles. This is a long and occasionally dense biography of Cornelius Vanderbilt, a character who continues to fascinate well over a century after his death. He is a character who is quite difficult to understand and, therefore, one who many biographers have portrayed unfairly as one dimensional. Stiles portrays him, accurately I think, as a brutal businessman but a man who had a tender heart toward those he loved and who did have some room in his heart (and his pocketbook) for acts of kindness and charity. Vanderbilt is a fascinating study of opposites, really, in his love-hate relationship with family members and business associates. For every noble character quality (which history has largely ignored) he has three or four ignoble. What interested me most of all, I think, was seeing how so much of what he did was motivated not by the desire to be wealthy, but by the desire to punish those who would dare to cross him. There were times when he risked the economy of the nation for reasons no more noble than personal vendetta. His pride seemed to know few bounds. Money was power and power was a game to see who could win the greatest, most resounding victories. If there was one thing I’d wish for this biography it would be that there be a little more of the man and a little bit less of his business transactions. However, Stiles would likely make the case that to know the man’s business is to know the man himself and he may well be right. While The First Tycoon can occasionally bog down in the details just a little bit, it remains a very readable biography of a character whose importance to America (as that first great business tycoon) is difficult to overstate.
The Victorian Internet by Tom Standage. In this book Tom Standage writes of “The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century’s On-Line Pioneers.” He shows, quite well, how the invention and popularization of the telegraph in many ways foreshadowed the world wide web. In a matter of just years the world shrank through this amazing new communication medium that was almost infinitely faster than the train and steam boat which, until that time, were the fastest bearers of information. If the book has a downside, it would be where Standage seems to over-reach just a little bit, reading the telegraph through the lens of the internet instead of the other way around. Still, it is fascinating to learn of “online” communication that saw men and women meet and marry through the wires much as people do today through the web and to read of the way society struggled to adapt to a medium of communications that was light years ahead. There are some good lessons for us to learn here. This is a book that will appeal to anyone who is interested in technology or history or the confluence of the two.
The Accidental Billionaires by Ben Mezrich. I read this book because I wanted to understand the history of Facebook–a program (a site, a lifestyle) that is changing society. The book’s cover (a picture of a red, lacy bra and a couple of cocktail glasses) and subtitle (A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius and Betrayal) should have tipped me off that it was not going to be serious history. Mezrich writes the book in the style of dramatic narrative which apparently means “when I don’t have facts, I’ll just make ’em up and when the story gets slow, I’ll fabricate a sex scene.” He does provide lots of interesting facts and shares the rather brutal history of Facebook (from Mark Zuckerberg essentially stealing the idea from people who had asked him to create a very similar social media site to the backhanded way that he forced his co-founder out of the company). I suppose it is a tale of money, genius and betrayal, though I don’t see how sex really enters into the true tale except as much as it would for any group of college students (except, of course, as a selling feature). So this is Mezrich’s take on the story, written in a tabloid fashion where what is true and what could be true blend together. The framework of the facts seems to line up with what I’ve read elsewhere but the very nature of the book makes it somewhat less than trustworthy. Still, if you want to know how Facebook came to be, how it evolved from a week’s worth of work for a college student to a company valued in the billions dollars, this seems to be the only show in town. Even then, read Wikipedia first to see if it offers enough to satisfy your curiosity before plunking down the money for this book. Even at just $16.50 it’s hard to believe that it’s worth the money.
Moneyball by Michael Lewis. This was a book I read purely for pleasure. This was a #1 national bestseller and has been available since 2003, so I am guessing many of you have already read it. Somehow I only got around to it now. In this book Lewis went on a search for answers, seeking to find out how the Oakland A’s, one of Major League Baseball’s poorest teams, could keep competing against teams with payrolls two or three times higher. And, indeed, the A’s have been competitive year after year. The book focuses in predominantly on Billy Beane who has been General Manager since 1998. It’s a very interesting book, though some of Beane’s “genius” has been exposed by the light of history (some of those draft picks that everyone else laughed at have, indeed, been laughable). But it’s still a very enjoyable read and one any baseball fan will enjoy, even six years later.
Tiny Dancer by Anthony Flacco. You may remember this as one of the few “feel-good” stories to emerge shortly after the US went to war in Afghanistan. Anthony Flacco relates the story of Zubaida Hasan, a nine year-old girl from a tiny village in rural Afghanistan who had been terribly injured in a kerosene fire. Burned and disfigured beyond recognition, Zubaida was taken by her father to the city where an American Green Beret saw her and took pity on her. She was eventually flown to the United States where she received first-world medical care and had her disfigured body rebuilt by Dr. Peter Grossman, a famed burn surgeon. At the same time she became almost a surrogate daughter to Grossman and his wife, Rebecca, as she lived with them through the long year of surgery and recovery. You can read more about Zubaida and her rather remarkable story at zubaidatinydancer.com. At the very least look at the before and after pictures and marvel at the blessing of modern medicine. Though this book stumbles into one of my pet peeves, putting thoughts into the characters heads–thoughts the author could not possibly have known–it is still quite a good read and worth the evening or two it will take to get through it. Though the book is only a few years old, it seems to be out of print so you need to find it in the bargain area (as I did) or buy it used.