Musashi, by Eiji Yoshikawa. Kodansha International, 1995.
Swordplay, true love, and a man climbing up the side of a cliff. It's not the Princess Bride; it's the story of Musashi, the most famous swordsman of Japan.
This is a romanticized, historical fiction novel. Musashi started out on the losing side of a battle, and spent his life seeking the true way of the samurai. The story has many coincidences and near misses (though fewer than the average episode of 24), but the charm and fun overcomes that.
|Guns, Germs, and Steel, by Jared Diamond. Norton, 2005.
Why did Europe take over North America and not vice versa? Guns, germs, and steel certainly made the immediate difference. Europe didn't acquire those randomly, but rather from specific factors.
The book could have been titled Food, Animals, and Latitude. Places with plants that could be more easily cultivated built a surplus that could support people doing things other than finding food. Places with animals that could be tamed had an advantage in reducing labor. And continents that are horizontal more than vertical let those plants and animals be shared more easily.
Diamond doesn't just use the example of Europe taking over North America. Rather, he explores the impact across a variety of cultures (including South America and the Pacific Islands). The result is a readable and interesting work.
Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Simon & Schuster, 2006.
The 150th anniversary of the Civil War is coming up, so no doubt there will be plenty of books in this area. Lincoln is an amazing figure, more than I'd ever appreciated. Though his political rivals generally started with limited respect for Lincoln, Lincoln convinced them that the country needed their service. Even though they didn't always agree, Lincoln earned their respect.
Lincoln was better than his predecessor and better than his successor; it's interesting to speculate how things might have happened if he'd lived.
Goodwin writes well, presenting the story from letters and papers of the original time. (There are plenty of footnotes in back:)
Warriors of God: Richard the Lionheart and Saladin in the Third Crusade, by James Reston. Faber and Faber, 2002.
Saladin became the sultan of a mostly-united Muslim world (where Shia and Sunni were conflicting even then). The European side was dominated by Philip of France and Richard the Lion-Hearted of England. Many others are involved, including brief appearances by Eleanor (Richard’s mother), John (his brother), and even Robin Hood. This was war, but politics certainly had its impact. The story is always interesting, though occasionally marred by flashbacks. Even 800 years later, we feel the echoes of this conflict.
Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, by Jared Diamond. Penguin, 2005.
What makes a society fail? Diamond looks at a variety of societies, current and past, to explore this, with a framework of several factors, but especially focusing most on ecological ones.
When discussing modern societies (e.g., Montana, New Guinea), Diamond is able to speak from personal experience and from interviews. He highlights how people build up a certain conception of their society, and how hard that makes change. He also discusses the effects of absentee owners, corporate influence, and more.
Diamond covers a variety of older societies too, in varying levels of detail, including Greenland, Easter Island, the Anasazi, and others. I found Greenland interesting because he was able to contrast the experience of the Norse Greenlanders and the Intuit, and Easter Island because he gives a plausible explanation for “the mystery.”
The writing draws on archaeology, biology, sociology, and more. By starting and ending with modern scenarios, it drew me in well: here’s where we are in Montana, here’s what happened to a variety of past societies, here are current issues. If you like a broad survey, that shows implications for today, you’ll like this book.
I saw a note in the paper that Western Union has sent their last telegram, shutting down a 150-year-old business. Wish I’d known it was coming, I’d have sent "What hath God wrought?" to several people. (I know they just added "@" to Morse code a couple years ago… figured it would be around forever.)
The book The Victorian Internet provides an interesting and readable history of the telegraph.