Okay, I usually like to run long distances but I've been singularly unhealthy this summer. This means that instead of being outside in the parks running, I've been relegated to the unhappy gym, where pretty much all I can do is ride the stationery bike. The good news is that I won the Tour de France, no, seriously, the good news is that being stuck on that damn bike has given me lots of reading time. So let's see what I've been reading lately. In no particular order...
The Big Bang by Simon Singh. I can't even tell you how much I enjoyed this book. It's about the search for the origins of the universe and the development of the Big Bang theory, but is really more like a history of scientific thought; in order to understand the Big Bang, you first have to see how the idea of a sun-centered universe came to be accepted, you have to see how astronomists began to classify stars and learned how to measure their distances, and so on. Singh brings it to life by focusing on the people behind the ideas, their quirks and their struggles. Don't worry if you don't have much of a background in astronomy (or chemistry or physics for that matter); there are plenty of charts, diagrams and illustrations to help make things clear.
Fermat's Enigma by Simon Singh. Well, I liked his other book so much, why not read another? Again, it's not just about the efforts to prove (or disprove) Fermat's last theorem, but also quite a bit about the history of math. I know, sounds deadly, doesn't it? But Singh always finds a story and a person behind each step on the way to Andrew Wiles' proof in 1995, and they're usually pretty interesting. He does his best to explain everything, but some of the math is still challenging if you're not a mathematician. The good news is that you can follow the story even without being able to solve every equation; as long as you can get the general concepts, you'll be fine. This book isn't quite as lush and engrossing as The Big Bang, but it's still a good read. And if you don't have much math experience, it really shows you a new way of looking at numbers, and maybe a little insight into the minds of those who do this kind of thing at a high level.
Into Africa by Martin Dugard. This is the story of Henry Stanley's search for lost explorer Dr. David Livingstone (yes, as in, "Dr. Livingstone, I presume?"). It's one of those episodes in history that you'll hear casually mentioned but don't actually know anything about (well, at least I didn't). Explorers were rock stars in the 19th and early 20th centuries, when the map of the world still had plenty of unmarked white spaces, or unknown lands. European explorers trooped off into the wilderness, made maps, poked their noses into the natives' business, then came home (well, hopefully) and wrote books that became big best-sellers. Dr. Livingstone was one of the biggest stars of the era, so when he didn't come back from a journey, it was worldwide news. Stanley was an American reporter that got sent out on the story of his life and barely lived to tell it. Anyway, it's a good read just because it's a different topic that I don't think really has been covered that much. Dugard does a particularly good job of illustrating the hardships of travel during that time period (next time you're sitting in the airport fuming about a late flight, just be glad you don't have to deal with tsetse flies). Sometimes I wondered if he was making too much of a leap into the psyches of the major players, but he said he had access to Stanley's private journals, as opposed to his published accounts, so if he can back up the thoughts and words he puts into people's mouths, well, then, I can't argue.
The Man Who Would Be King: the First American in Afghanistan by Ben Macintyre. This is about the adventures of Josiah Harlan, a 19th c. Pennsylvania Quaker who made his way through British-controlled India and eventually Afghanistan, where he picked up a title to a small kingdom. Supposedly he was the inspiration for Kipling's story, The Man Who Would be King, though the characters there met a much harsher fate than Harlan. Anyway, if you're interested in the Raj, the "Great Game," the Afghan wars, etc., this is a nice little addition to your other reading. Harlan meets plenty of characters on his way through India and Afghanistan, including some of the major players in Britain's failed attempts to control Afghanistan. It's fine, but definitely a niche topic.
Farther Than Any Other Man: The Rise and Fall of Captain James Cook by Martin Dugard (yes, of Livingston/Stanley above). Again, this book appealed to me because Captain Cook is someone whose name you hear but that I, at least, didn't really know anything about. Dugard does a good job of depicting life on board ship in the 18th century, and is fairly good with the personalities involved in the story. Two flaws, though: one is framing the story within his own "quest" for Cook. He goes to some of the places Cook traveled to, where he lived in London, where he died, etc., but not enough to really integrate that into the story. Even if he did include more, it still wouldn't work; it's just not necessary. Dugard's travels are really more just about his own ponderous thoughts of the "what makes men go off on lonely, daring, death-defying adventures?" variety. It seems like he's really just trying to create a romanticized portrait of himself as an explorer to match Cook, a tortured soul going off on his own crusade to conquer the unknown. Yeah, okay, we don't care. The other problem is that again, as in Into Africa he makes a lot of leaps into Cook's thought processes and motivations, but this time I don't think he has quite the backup material that he had with Stanley. He seems to be making a lot of educated guesses, which is fine, but sometimes he treats these as more than guesses. He keeps trying to generate a lot out of Cook's relationship with his father and how that influences Cook's actions, but these connections are strained and unnecessary. Too much 21st c. pop psychology. All that said, I'll still recommend it. It does give you insight into exploration of the Pacific, his blow by blow account of Cook's travels are solid, and if that all won't convince you, well, it's short and fast. It won't kill you to wing your way through it and you might learn a thing or two.
Big Trouble by J. Anthony Lukas. Okay, I'm actually only two hundred pages into this one, but still thought I'd mention it. Lukas's starting point is the 1905 murder of ex-governor of Idaho, Frank Steunenberg, but he uses that to launch into a kind of social and cultural history of the late 19th/early 20th century, with a particular focus on the struggles between labor unions and big business. I read a few reviews of this book before I got it, and the general complaint was that Lukas tried to cover too much, that it wanders off from the main story and tries to make too many connections. It's easy to see what they mean: a murder takes place in Idaho, so therefore we get a brief history of the settlement of Idaho. There are miners so we read about the history of mining and miners' unions in the west. Detectives arrive on the scene, so there is a detailed explanation of the rise of private detective agencies in the 19th century, including a blow-by-blow description of one Pinkerton detective's involvement in bringing down the Molly Maguires, an Irish gang that dominated Pennsylvania coal country. So there's a lot of material here, a lot of people and events to keep straight. But I'm fine with that. The late 19th/early 20th c. is one of my favorite periods in history, so for me it's an opportunity to just dive into the details of another time and place. No matter where I am when I'm reading it, I feel like I'm about eight years old, sitting in my favorite corner of the sofa on a rainy Saturday, totally engrossed in the world of the book with nothing else to do all day but read. Well, that's how I feel now; I've still got about 700 pages to go, so maybe I'll feel impatience somewhere along the line. But I doubt it.
Okay, that's it for the moment. I've read other good books in the first half of this year and sometime will try to make notes about them before I forget.