Tuesday, December 18, 2012

More about books

In October, replying to a comment from Bear, I did a search on my blog and found this draft I think I never published, but I'm honestly not sure (such are my technological abilities). I said I would post it the following week, and then immediately forgot. More about books, but I can't help myself. I love them so. Anyway, with very little fiddling, like the introduction, here it is:


If you haven't read my profile for this blog (to tell the truth, I wouldn't even know where to tell you to look for it on the page, but I know I wrote one), I love books. When I moved from New York to Virginia I brought 32 cartons of them with me, after giving away hundreds, and have added substantially since (and hauled them all back to New York). When I go on trips and lock up my house, it is with the idea in my head that the almost the only thing I am leaving that I really care about in it if the house burns down while I'm gone (Why do I expect this, you ask? Probably my habit of forgetting if I turned the stove off) are my books.

At first, I was intending to just list all my books in this post. Don't think that's crazy. There are actually websites where people do just that. Instead, I decided to do another version of top ten lists, based on books I own or read. As I have also spent a lot of time in libraries reading, and I'm including that as well. As with all top ten lists, of course you are going to disagree. You will be wrong (almost certainly), but that is the point of top ten lists. And, I may have already done one of these lists already, but seriously, do you expect me to remember everything I write here? I treat multi-volume works as either single or multiple, depending on my needs of the moment and if cheat a bit with the whole top ten thingee.

Top Ten WWII histories

This one is really rough for me. So many to choose from.

1) The Second World War, Winston Churchill, particulary the first two volumes, The Gathering Storm and Their Finest Hour. First, Churchill was a great writer. Second, he is one of the main characters in the greatest story of our last century. There were things he couldn't talk about (see no. 3, below) and things he wasn't real clear about. But, there was no one quite like him and it is largely just wonderful.

2) The Making of the Atomic Bomb, Richard Rhodes. I've written here a number of times that I think this is the best single volume history I've ever read. I might reverse it with Churchill's multi-volume work mentioned above and give it first prize, but I will give the P.M. the nod as a matter of respect. I do warn people, it is not light reading, but it never lagged in interest for me. Science, adventure, spies, escapes, geniuses, and so on ad infinitum. And, you will almost, but not quite, learn how to make a nuclear bomb. It is on my nightstand and reading it again very slowly.

3) The Ultra Secret, F. W. Wintherbotham. The story of how we broke the secret German Enigma machine codes, long kept a secret after the war.

4) The Liberation Trilogy., Rick Atkinson. An Army at Dawn is the story of the American invasion of North Africa in 1942 and 1943. It could be credibly subtitled - how the Americans learned to fight. The second volume, The Day of Battle, which covers the invasion of Italy and Sicily, was great too. Some might say even better. Atkinson is a great writer who knows his history and how to tell a story. I don't know if there is a title for the scheduled third volume, which should be out next year.

5) The Rising Sun, John Toland. The story of Japan before during and after the war, told mostly from their point of view.

6) Telford Taylor's Munich is an impressive display of scholarship and real history. The title is just the linchpin as it covers many years in leading up to WWII. After Churchill's own effort covering a shorter period of time in a more personal, but less comprehensive way, it is the best of the bunch, and that includes other brilliant efforts, including Donald Cameron Watt's impressive How War Came: The Immediate Origins of the Second World War and A.J.P. Taylor's shorter and more controversial The Origins of the Second World War, which I also own and treasure.

7) The Desert Fox, John Irving. This book is about Irwin Rommel, the great tank commander, and like all of Irving's books, very readable, almost like a novel, and often including previously unpublished memoirs, etc.. John Keegan, one of the dean's of historians, ranks Irving very highly. But, Irving's career has been essentially destroyed by others who believe he has falsified history, and I think maybe unfairly. I've never gotten around to reading the libel trial transcript and doubt I will, but, if I ever do fully research it, I will post my thoughts. I also loved his Churchill's War and Hitler's War.

8) The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, Alone 1932-1940. Learned things here about the man of the century I did not know, particularly about his private life. Writing it must have been fun because the author got to pick and choose from Churchill's parliamentary speeches, which is like reading inspirational poetry.

9) Inside the Third Reich, Albert Speer. Speer was Hitler's architect, then armaments man and probably as close to a friend as Hitler could have. He was spared death because of his heroic behavior at the end of the war to save the Germans and his mea culpas at the trial. But, he participated in using slave labor and knew more than he pretended about what the Reich was doing. Yet, starting in prison, he wrote wonderfull best sellers that in part explore the why Hitler stuff that fascinates me. I'll cheat here and lump in with this book Gitta Sereny's Albert Speer: His battle with Truth, which discusses precisely that. An unusual and riveting biography.

10) The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany, William L. Shirer. Shirer was an American journalist who was there for the whole rise of the Nazis. Groundbreaking work, if a little hyperbolic at times. It was one of my first.

11) A Man Called Intrepid. William Stevenson. Oddly, this book about William Stephenson, the British Intelligence representative to America, is written by William Stevenson, no relation. According to Ian Fleming, Stephenson was the real James Bond. Other historians find him much less important. I tend to stand closer to Fleming and Stevenson, as he was knighted by Britain (he was Canadian) right after the war. The following year he became the first non-American to receive our Presidential Medal for Merit, the highest U.S. civilian medal and much later on, a Companion of the Order of Canada. The CIA has publicly acknowledged he played a key role in its creation. Only 2 years ago, he became only the third non-American to be made an honorary member of the U.S. Army Intelligence Corp. Somehow, I don't think that would all be done for the made up creation of one author. But anything is possible in politics.

Runner ups: First, two short books. A Thread of Deceit, Nigel West and Piercing the Reich, Joseph E. Persico, both on intelligence aspects of the war. How War Came - speaking of Keegan, I read this one on his recommendation. Hitler and Stalin, Alan Bullock. A dual biography which has led me to masses of new material. Also Watt's book mentioned above. There are so many more books you could choose from, of course, but, since it is a top ten list, I can only cheat so much.

Top ten fantasy novels

I can't explain why I do not really like the fantasy genre very much. I can barely read anything in it. But, for some reason, my favorite fantasy books are among my favorite books period. Go figure.

1) The Lord of the Rings, J. R. R. Tolkien. No explanation necessary.

2) The Hobbit, J. R. R. Tolkien. Ditto.

3) The Once and Future King, T. H. White (""TOFK"). TOFK is first book of White's Arthurian cycle, but the next two volumes are wonderful as well. To read TOFK get it as a single volume as for some reason the collection leaves out a great chapter in it so that the chapter before it seems incomplete. But, do NOT read the fifth volume - The Book of Merlin, published posthumously. It was horrible, just HORRIBLE.

4) The Worm Ouroboros, E. R. Eddison. This is a great fantasy novel in the sword and sorcery vein, lyrically bejewelled and intricately plotted at the same time. The first thirty pages or so are really boring, as it is just the way we get to the planet Mercury where the action takes place. A good editor would have just cut it out. You can skim that part without missing a thing. Even Tolkien thought Eddison a great lyricist, and he was very hard to please.

5) The Face in the Frost, John Bellairs. A small story about magic and two kingdoms. I can't even tell you what I liked so much about it, but in a nutshell, it brought you into a magical little world. Bellairs is a children's author and I could not recommend anything else by him.

6) Silverthorn. John Myers Myers was a historian and novelist who wrote some of my favorite books. This is a rollicking, incredibly fast paced fantasy which flits through innumerable literary characters Myers weaved into his story, usually only hinting at who they are. The ending didn't really satisfy me, but is consistent with the nature of the book.

7) The Arthurian Saga, Mary Stewart. Another King Arthur story, but originally and wonderfully told. How many times can it be redone? I read The Chrystal Cave as a young man and still remember the haunting first chapter.

8) People of the Mist, Henry Rider Haggard. I often mess up his name, but this time I double checked. People is merely my favorite of his novels. She, King Solomon's Mines, Allan Quartermain and many others are also as much fun as a sword fight between Basil Rathbone and anyone else. However, I might have chosen his faux-Icelandic saga, Eric Brighteyes, which includes all the good stuff about that genre and leaves out all the bad. In 30 years, I have finally read a Haggard novel I do not like this year about the Greek hero, Odysseus in Egypt. Won't even tell you the name as chances of you reading it are really slim.

9) Damiano trilogy, R. A. MacAvoy. Three slender fantasies by an otherwise ordinary writer are about a young wizard tutored by the Archangel Raphael on the lute and were especially original and fun. I could not find another book by her that I wanted to read after trying a couple including her well known Tea with a black dragon. Not for me.

10) Glory Road, Robert A. Heinlein. This king of sci-fi writers also wrote this fun sword and sorcery bit.

Runner up: The entire Conan corpus. Robert Howard died young, but created an ancient world almost as rich as Tolkien's without a tenth of his learning. I also love Howard's Road to Azrael.

Top Ten Civil War histories

Another topic that is almost too hard to pick winners. But, like the great Chief Dan George said in character in my favorite Western film, The Outlaw Josie Wales, I shall endeavor to perservere:

1) Abraham Lincoln: Speeches and Writings, I and II, Everyman's Library. This great collection includes everything he wrote of importance. Bear bought me the entire 11 volume collection and I thumb through that too all the time lookin for gems, but, if you aren't a compulsive history reader, you'll do better with the 2 volumes, which include all of the Lincoln Douglas debates.

2) The Eloquent President, Ronald C. White. A simply ground breaking scholarly analysis of Lincoln's writing. I've read so much on Lincoln it is hard for me to find new information I haven't read before, but he taught me a lot. I was very excited to read, but in the end, not as impressed by his one volume biography, A. Lincoln.

3) The Civil War, A History, Harry Hansen. This one volume history of the war may not be the most famous, but it is my favorite.

4) Army of the Potomac trilogy, Bruce Catton. Maybe the best multi-volume work on the subject although Shelby Foote fans will argue the case. A Stillness at Appomattox is my and probably everyone else's favorite.

5) With Malice Towards None, Stephen B. Oates. I am not sure why, but this was my favorite Lincoln biography, although some criticize it, I think unfairly.

6) Lincoln at Gettysburg, Garry Wills. Wills is simply one of the greatest living historians. I've learned more from him about American history than probably any other author. Talk about groundbreaking - this book startled everyone with his analysis of the greatest speech in American history (though some, like White, would quarrel). I could see this as high as no. 3.

7) Lincoln's Herndon, David Donald. One of the great Lincoln scholars, this little book went into the life of Lincoln's enigmatic law partner, who was not a great man, but knew one real well. Still, deciphering fact from fiction was Donald's mission, and perhaps you couldn't do it better. I know that Bear will complain here that he likes Donald's Lincoln, and, he may be correct, but I prefer his Herndon.

8) Fighting for the Confederacy, Edward Porter Alexander. General Alexander was just all over the Civil War, including playing a major role at Gettysburg. His memoirs make it sound like he really enjoyed it. I've written about his memoirs in depth before if you look in the archives. It is, in my opinon, the best Civil War memoir period, putting Grant's more famous work to shame.

9) American Brutus, Michael W. Kauffman. Kauffman is one of those guys who is not a professional historian at all, but obsessed with a topic. He took up Booth and set the Civil War author's world on fire. He might not be right about everything, although it is not as radical as he likes to think, but he is very worth reading.

10) The Real Lincoln, Thomas J. DiLorenzo. DiLorenzo just despises Lincoln. I don't. I revere him. But, you can't dispute the evidence DiLorenzo marshalls and he does it well. Other historians would rather dismiss DiLorenzo than deal with his arguments, but that isn't fair.

Runner up: Grant by Jean Edward Smith. Smith was a leader in literally re-writing Grant's history, and shows how his successful presidency (two terms), was undercut by generations of southern authors.

Notes: I am not as big a fan of Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals as many others are. It was a terrific book in a lot of ways, and I am not knocking it, but it was not really original and I didn't learn much. Still, very readable and perhaps a good introduction for those who haven't read a zillion Lincoln or Civil War books already. Obviously, from this list, I admit I like reading about Lincoln and that leaves out a whole lot of great books that don't focus on him. Still, he was the key.
Afternote: Some will complain I left out James McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom. I know I read it once, right at the beginning of my American history phase starting in the late 80s, but I just can't remember anything about it, so it doesn't make the list.

Top ten books on the founding generation

1) The Adams-Jefferson Letters. For at least two years I slowly hand copied excerpts from the two junior lions of the revolution (Washington and Franklin being the seniors). Friends, then enemies, then pen pals at last, their last 14 years of letters, really more Adams than Jefferson, was just wonderful as their topics ranged everywhere and were revealing, interesting. It was also written for us to read, no doubt about it.

2) The Federalist Papers, Hamilton, Madison and Jay. Really newspaper articles supporting ratification of the Constitution, they are must reads if you are serious about this stuff. But, don't read them unless that describes you. However, it is the great constitutional reference book. Just ask the Supreme Court.

3) Bolt of Fate, Tom Tucker. I have read almost every recent (20 years plus a few oldies?) biography of Franklin, but I think I like this very focused specialty work on whether Franklin really sailed the kite with the key. Read it and it is very hard not to conclude that Tucker is right on the mark. It probably never happened.

4) The First American, H. W. Brands. I haven't found anything else by Brands I really love, but this is my favorite of all the modern Franklin bios.

5) Alexander Hamilton and Alexander Hamilton. I'm cheating again. One is by Williard Sterne Randall, who has written some great books on the founders, including this one on Hamilton, but can't really crack the top ranks of historians, and the other by Ron Chernow, whose more recent and comprehensive work, was better in some ways, but probably overkill. Randall may have sensationalized some things, but then again, maybe not.

6) The Origins of the American Party System, Joseph Charles. Loved and learned a lot from this hard to find but terrific review of . . . read the title.

7) The Louisiana Purchase, Thomas Fleming. Fleming is another writer who is not quite in the top ranks, but probably should be. His works are fun, iconoclastic, interesting and creative. This was my favorite so far.

8) The First Emancipator, Andrew Levy. Kudos to Mr. Levy for bringing to light this founding generation gazillionaire, peer of Washington and Jefferson, who was far richer, had more slaves than them put together and was even more dependent on his slaves - but freed them all!

9) The Negro President and Inventing America, both by Garry Wills on Jefferson. Wills loves Jefferson, but tells the truth about him.

10) The History of the American Revolution, David Ramsay. This book is incomplete and sometimes in error. But, Ramsay had an excuse. This was published in 1789. Let me say it once more. 1789. A magnificent achievement for an early American historian. I admit that it makes my lists for those reasons, rather than what I learned from it.

Top Ten Noir/Pulp Novels

1) The Glass Key, Dashiell Hammett. Why did I love this one more than all the others of the genre? I can't say. But, it was my favorite.

2) Killer in the Rain, Raymond Chandler. I never read a word of Chandler that did not transport me into an earlier, darker, seedier and haunting world.

3) Anything by Jim Thompson. No particular book here. I love Thompson. He is the godfather of them all. After Dark my Sweet, The Criminal, The Killer Inside Me. All great. Don't miss his short stories either. They may even be better than the novels. There's one, and I just can't remember the title, that opens with the protaganist tied to a bed, his legs spread open, with a snarling pit bull in between. Yikes!

4) The Maltese Falcon, Hammet. You've seen the movie (maybe). The book is just as good or better.

5) The Doorbell Rang, Rex Stout. I have read (long ago) every Rex Stout Nero Wolfe novel and have a few favorites. This, where Archie and Nero take on the FBI, is number 1. Some Buried Caesar (the first), A Family Affair, which really makes you feel like your own family has been affected and The Black Mountain, where we get more than hints of Nero's past are up there. But, not one I didn't love. I have turned a few readers on to him. Try it. You will never feel the same about 34th Street in Manhattan.

6) Anything by Damon Runyon. I don't think I can like you if you can read any Damon Runyon short story and not find it charming. The man who wrote the story that was made into Guys and Dolls had a fascinating life too. But, you can argue it is too comic to be pulp and I won't fight you.

7) Flood, Andrew Vachss. Vachss' Burke series is about as pulpish as you can get, but they are fairly recent. Vachss is really a fascinating guy and I admire him a lot. The first five or six books of this series were great. After that it got a little too sad and painful for me. But highly recommend you try him. Quite creative. Do not read his stab at Batman. Nooooo.

8) The Buddha Book, Abraham Rodriguez. I've written about this remarkable and virtually unknown book before too. What promise this guy had. Unlike anything else I ever read. He may have only written one more, but it doesn't look so hot.

9) Devil in a Blue Dress, Walter Mosley. Mosley's Easy Rawlin's novels were to the modern detective novel what adrenalin is to a good workout. Dark, colorful (no pun intended). It is almost impossible to not like and root for Easy (Ezekiel) and even his crazy, murderous friend Mouse.

10) Out on the Cutting Edge, Lawrence Block. One of the many Matthew Scudder novels. Is he original? No. Scudder is a reformed alcoholic, an unlicensed private eye and his girlfriend is a prostitute. All that has been done before. It's just that Block is a great writer. I'm pretty sure I've read everything he has ever written that isn't for the internet only and was only one book I didn't like (A Small Town). Too much icky sex in it. Scudder is the dark New York City version of Robert Parker's Spencer (who I'm sure some think I should have included, but, he is too light hearted to be considered pulp or noirish by me - still, great stuff). Out on the Cutting Edge introduces Mick Ballou, a great character - one of those bad/good guys.

As usual, this has gotten way too long, and I'll have to continue this theme another day.


  1. I am at work. A comprehensive response demands that I be in my library. Stay tuned, Frodo. I say now: Shelby Foote, Robert E. Howard (Conan, Kull, and Solomon Kane and he DOES NOT make the top 10????????? Have you lost the one or two wits you have left?),McPherson but not the book you think, Stephen Ambrose, acch,wait 'til I get home. Right now I need some Tums.

  2. Reminds me of a Bob Hope retort - "You couldn't say that to me if I had my writers here." Something like that. Can't wait for the lists, but you may have a war on your hands.

  3. These type of lists generally raise more questions than they answer. A very good thing.

    Mayby not exactly a history but how could you not put "Traveller" in the Civil War category??? One of the most unique books I have ever come across.

  4. Because the topic is "Top Ten Civil War Histories" and Traveller is a novel. But, in Endlessly Fascinating: The Civil War (August 2, 2009) it was the first book I mentioned about the Civil War, though I often misspell the title. You might not remember this but in 1990 (I think) you recommended Traveller to me as a book your father loved.

  5. I've decided it's your list and that's that. Saving my diatribe for another day. Quick thoughts: WWII, you do NOT mean John Irving the fiction writer (World According to Garp, etc.), your Irving is, I think, David. Civil War: Shelby Foote and McPherson's book on Antietam. Also Ed Bearrs book on battlefields, and Drew Faust's "The Republic of Suffering", great stuff.Fantasy: Surprisingly, the area we disagree the most. I HATED Silverthorn. You raved about it, lent it to me, and it was a big yuck. The ending was NOT an ending. It was I'm a lousy writer and I can't think of a way to end this....Ptui. Founders: Malone's multi-volume bio on Jefferson is incomparable, and I think Ellis's Washington is underrated. Finally, though I repeat myself, you can't leave Robert Howard off a fantasy list, you moron. He deserves to have MULTIPLE entries. Sheesh.

  6. What happened to saving the diatribe for another day? That wasn't a diatribe? Anyone that ends a comment with "sheesh" or writes "HATED" in caps is writing a diatribe. Yes, of course, David, not John Irving. You know I have a weakness with names So far in the years I've been doing this I recall you nailing me with writing "William" instead of Mike Huckabee, Aaron "Brown" instead of Aaron Rodgers and now Irving, that I recall, all of which I should know better, but screwed up on. While we are at it, I'm also terribly dyslexic with homophones like their/there, do/due, hear/here, etc., even -ent/ant endings, but I've learned over the years to check those better if I have time). What you should be doing is proofreading for me BEFORE I post, but that would ruin all your fun.

    As for your substantive comments, I love Shelby Foote, but he is not my favorite, and never read McPherson's book on Antietam, The Republic of Suffering (though had it in my hand today, coincidentally) or Bearrs book on battlefields, though I own my own battlefield book that is not by him. You can't read everything, hard as we try.

    As for Silverthorn, I'm calling you out on that. First, you read it in the hospital under sedation (you forget -- I actually know you). According to your wife, regardless of being drugged, you could not put it down and LOVED it except for the end. And I have always agreed with you on the end!!! But, aside from that, it was a rip roaring roller coaster (and other cliches) of a read and great fun. Myers was a great writer, and if people can find it, I'd also recommend Dead Warrior and The Wild Yazoo, both terrific historical fiction and his great historical fiction including Bravos of the West, The Alamo, Doc Holliday and The Saga of Hugh Glass. Also, The Harp and the Blade, one of the best fantasy novels I've ever read. And, I'm not even done with him. Besides all that, he is a fellow Long Islander. You need to read Silverlock when you are not sedated so you can remember how much you loved it.

    As for Dumas Malone's Jefferson multi-volume set, it was a great bio, but not incomparable. And, he was guilty of hagiography. I am not an Ellis fan and have not read his Washington, though some of his other books. I have not read Chernow's yet, though I'm sure it is superior. My favorite Washington to day is Edward G. Lengel's General George Washington: A Military Life.

    As for Robert Howard, I like the guy and the Conan books were a
    lot of fun. He created endless characters writing short stories and some novels (published after he died, poor guy) including about boxers, pirates, westerns, sailors, men and women sword fighters, fantasy characters, historical fiction and others. His bibliography seems endless. But, much as I liked him (and Bear introduced me to his work) and think he might qualify as a great writer, he is also not at the very top. Is it really not enough I put his entire Conan corpus and another novel as runner ups?


Your comments are welcome.

About Me

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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .