Speaking of vacation, though, I always take the opportunity to go to a few used bookstores and stock up, and now I'm enjoying going through all the stuff I bought! Click below the break for my thoughts on the stuff I'm currently reading.
The Billion Dollar Game, by Allen St. John
What it is: The story of Super Bowl XLII from behind the scenes of the building, the announcing, and even the parties.
How I'm liking it so far: There are a lot of interesting bits to this story; the discussion of how a broadcast producer can guide the commentators and use different replay angles to create a completely different narrative on a given play was facinating, for example. But as I'm getting farther into the book, I'm really wishing that the author had picked one or two stories and followed them more closely. Between the three main elements being discussed (the broadcast, the stadium, and the Playboy party) each having multiple sub-elements (for broadcast, there's the producer, the announcers, the commercials, the actual broadcast rights...), and the additional non focus elements which intrude (like, say, the teams that are actually playing), this book feels like it's offering me a glimpse behind the scenes of a bunch of stuff, when what I really wanted was an in-depth look at any one of them.
Recommendation: If you're looking for a casual, wide-ranging peek at just how far America's Biggest Game stretches its tendrils, this would be a good choice. Just don't expect much intensity on any given subject.
From the Jaws of Victory, by Charles Fair
What it is: A collection of great military blunders, and the men who committed them.
How I'm liking it so far: Although this book isn't that old (1971), it's got a very... let's say, "a very old-school attitude toward other cultures," which I find is often distracting in period works and a bit distasteful from something more recent. That's only an occasional issue, however, and the rest of the time Fair is witty and incisive about the foibles of various generals and leaders who mucked up their shots at winning their battles/wars. He generally assumes a solid familiarity on the reader's part with the battles/wars being discussed, but he uses that assumption to build on the traditional narratives in ways that help make clear not just what so-and-so did wrong, but why he should have known better, and what a more competent leader might have done knowing what they did at the moment.
Recommendation: Though not a good introductory work to the battles in question (starting from ancient Greece, but mostly focusing on post-Napoleonic Europe), this is an educational and entertaining read for students of military history.
Whatever Happened to Tanganyika?, by Harry Campbell
What it is: The history of a collection of now-defunct place names: where those names came from, and why they're no longer used.
How I'm liking it so far: I'm absolutely loving this book. Each name is a stand-alone mini-essay, which makes this great for interrupted reading, and the author has a delightfully dry sense of humor which shines through in both text and footnotes without obscuring the heavy doses of history and trivia (from the must-read article on Neutral Moresnet: "Think of the tiniest, most absurd microstate you can imagine. Forget Lichtenstein and Monaco, even Vatican City; did you know that for a century or so there existed a tiny scrap of territory about three miles long, less than 1000 acres in area, known as Neutral Moresnet? Where else would it be but next to mighty Belgium, that complex little country riven with conflicting minorities, where a whole government can be brought down by a dispute over the language rights of a municipality of six villages (The Voeren or Fourons, but that's for another book)?"). The history isn't always cheery--many place-names have been changed because they were assigned by colonial Europeans, back to more indigenous names, and the stories of these are almost invariably shot through with human misery--but this book doesn't shy away from that either, and through it all remains relentlessly, aggressively facinating.
Recommendation: For anyone who likes geography, history, or words, I cannot recommend this book enough. It's a slim volume, but it packs a lot into few pages.
Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom, by Stephen R. Platt
What it is: A history of the Taiping Rebellion in China.
How I'm liking it so far: My entire knowledge of the Taiping Rebellion prior to picking this book up was "It was in the mid-1800s, and 20 million people died"--which, it seems, put me comfortably ahead of average in the "what Westerners know about the Taiping Rebellion" sorting. As it turns out, the rebellion was a fascinating intersection of politics, religion, colonialism, ethnic turmoil, and trade, and Platt goes into great detail about each of these. Even in a book as large as Autumn, that's a lot to cover, and most of the military history is quickly summarized in favor of the whos and whys of the conflict, as well as looking at how Chinese and foreign interests intersected and diverged throughout the conflict. It's a dense work, but it's consistently interesting, and although by no means is it light reading, I'm enjoying the book at about the 1/3-way point.
Recommendation: This book was written to be accessable to those with little or no background in the rebellion, so I'd have no trouble recommending it to anyone who, like me, was coming in at or near square one and wanted to know more about this strange but vitally important period of Chinese history.
...Yup, four books, and all of them nonfiction. Even the one I'd just finished and hadn't replaced (Bill Bryson's In a Sunburned Country; classic Bryson, mixing anecdote and Australian history in equal measure; read it if you like highly-informative, engagingly written travelogues) was nonfiction. Huh; that doesn't usually happen.