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        Library


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The Travels
by Marco Polo

After reading Invisible Cities, I was curious about Calvino's inspiration, and what I found in Marco Polo's book was clearly that. He moves from city to city, starting in the Mediterranean and preceeding east to China, detailing the customs, products, geography, and trade potential of each region. Calvino follows not a geographical path but a sort of poetical or meditative path, and the cities he describes are clearly otherworldly. Polo, on the other hand, describes these cities in alternately credible and dubious manners, including anecdotes about the local sages' conjuring abilities or the land's habitation by fantastical creatures. Given the context of a 13th-century traveller, however, it is perfectly reasonable, expected, and yet fascinating.

Categories: History, Literature

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Don Quixote
by Miguel de Cervantes

Rebecca and I have been mulling a trip to Spain for the past year. I'm not sure if or when it will happen, but it did inspire me to obtain a copy of Cervantes for his account of the most celebrated, virtuous, gallant, and delusional knight-errant in Spanish history.

Categories: Literature

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Invisible Cities
by Italo Calvino

I had sampled this novel (the word doesn't seem appropriate) some time ago, and while reading the Odyssey, was reminded occassionally of it, as the hero encountered strange new cities. In a circular path of reference, I am at times reminded of Borges' city of the Immortals, by Calvino's descriptions of impossible cities, which I referenced below in inspiring me to read Homer.

Categories: Literature

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The Republic
by Plato

I knew that Plato makes several references to Homer in this famous construction of a utopic society, so I thought this a natural follow-on to the Iliad and Odyssey. I'm particularly interested in his views of Homeric justice, which I found brutal. Also, I'm enjoying my return to classical Greece.

Categories: Literature

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The Odyssey
by Homer

After thoroughly enjoying the Iliad, it's only natural that I continue with the story of Odysseus. For this half of Homer, I selected the latest translation by Robert Fagles, which I'm enjoying but occasionally finding a bit too modern. The suitors are brought wine and appetizers, as part of their last meal offered by Telemachus. Come on, this is the House of Odysseus, not the House of Pancakes!

In sum, however, this is a very enjoyable translation, complete with ample discussion (which I'll continue sampling), informative notes, and gorgeous maps.

Categories: Literature

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The Iliad
by Homer

I picked this up as I was killing time at a bookstore near my favorite taqueria. The taqueria was overrun with high school students, as it sometimes is since Alameda High is a block away. Ironically, this is probably required reading for them.
 
Around this time I reread "The Immortal", in which Borges describes a Roman's encounter with a 1000-year-old Homer, scrawling complex but unintelligible designs in the sand, outside the walls of the empty, Escher-esque city of the immortals.

Categories: History, Literature

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Gravity's Rainbow
by Thomas Pynchon

If there's such a thing as a book that has it all, this has got to be it. An intricate, fast-paced plot, hundreds of interesting characters, inventively hilarious scenes, varied locales, Borges-esque fantasy, downright pornographic, often bizarre, passages, frequent science or engineering -based metaphors, unexpected musical numbers, comic-book references, passages evoking film noir, encounters with Mickey Rooney, loads of real or pseudo-real historical facts, and "so much more!" Pynchon's style is often quite beautiful, and reminded me at times of free-form jazz.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this novel, though occasionally it was exhausting. I'd read it again right away, but like Slothrop, I'm spent.

Categories: Literature

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Istanbul: Memories and the City
by Orhan Pamuk

This book by a recent Nobel prize winning author caught my eye in a recent book store visit. I've long been fascinated with the former Constantinople, the seat of the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires, and indeed this book fueled my fascination. But it's really about how a place shapes a person, in this case the author. Pamuk is an excellent writer, and I plan on reading one of his novels someday. If I had known, however, I would have saved this largely autobiographical work until after reading his fiction.

Categories: Literature, World Travel

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A Game of Thrones
by George R R Martin

While my sister visited a few months ago, we went on a hike and talked about Tolkien and other fantasy stories. This inspired me to find and read some other fantasy series, a genre I've all but abandoned in recent years. I enjoyed this book, but in a guilty way. I had forgotten how much this genre revolves around plot. But beyond the skillful construction of plot, Martin draws believable and unique characters, which I've found hard to come by in fantasy. While he doesn't quite construct a deeply rooted and familiar world like Tolkien, he does tell several good, intertwining stories.

Categories: Literature

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The Decameron
by Giovanni Boccaccio

I began reading this book a few weeks prior to our trip to central Italy in November 2003, as a way to "set the mood" for the trip. That was somewhat successful, as Boccaccio tells through fable-like stories what life was like in 14th-century Italy. Considered an inspiration for Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, The Decameron is structured around ten young Florentine nobles who escape to a country house to avoid the scourge of the Plague. There they pass the time by each telling a story every day for ten days, hence the title.
 
I recently picked this back up, in fact during the final weeks before our wedding. Of course it struck me at once that nearly all the tales involved some dude's scheme to get a married woman to sleep with him. Not that I plan to use any of these tricks or foresee the need to recognize any suitors using the same tricks. But it's highly entertaining stuff, and you can't beat the Renaissance era as a setting.

Categories: Literature, History

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The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana
by Umberto Eco

Eco's latest was recently released in paperback format, so I picked up a copy. This is the story of a middle-aged antique book dealer who loses the memories of his life, but remembers everything he's ever read. Just as Eco's other works have inspired me to study history, I think this one will lead me to discover other literary works. Already I have sampled Edgar Allen Poe's Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, to which I may return later.
 
Eco's generous references to other works of literature, historical events, and pop culture trivia has inspired a wiki: Queen Loana Anotation Project.
 
I finished this book quickly, it being a page-turner like Eco's other novels. But I feel I finished it too quickly - my head is still swimming from the heavy emotional content, loads of ambiguities, on top of the usual bombardment of historical, literary, and cultural information. I give it 5 stars with caution, not because I feel it isn't deserving, but because I'm not sure I've earned the right to rate it yet. I will probably attempt a second reading once I surface for air.
 
Reading this novel has been very enjoyable and rewarding, but has left me missing something. If this was Eco's intent, he is a genius.

Categories: Literature

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Introduction to Topology
by Theodore W. Gamelin, Robert Everist Greene

I recently picked this book up again after attempting to tackle it several months ago. Currently I am trying to get a good hold of metric spaces and fundamental set theory.

Categories: Mathematics

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Dr. Space
by Bob Ward

A friend of mine, John Shaver, recommended this book about rocket pioneer and hometown hero Wernher von Braun, in fact after seeing my new website. Ward wrote about Dr. von Braun and the American space program in our hometown's newspaper, The Huntsville Times, from the 50s onward. Here he collects all the information on the distinguished professor to present a fair portrait of the man who built weapons for the Nazis before helping to send Americans to the moon. Fascinating!
 
I'm thoroughly enjoying the anecdotes and adventures of Von Braun, but I have a minor quibble about Ward's research. He apparently didn't care much about the astronauts as he confuses details about several of them. Alan Shepard wasn't grounded for a heart murmur (that was Deke Slayton; Shepard was grounded for inner ear problems), and Neil Armstrong didn't have a PhD in astrophysics (that would be Buzz "Dr. Rendezvous" Aldrin). Again, only a minor problem, considering Ward's focus.

Categories: Space Exploration

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Fundamentals of Astrodynamics
by Roger R. Bate, Donald D. Mueller, Jerry E. White

After trying my hand at some of the challenges of spaceflight in the freeware game Orbiter, I desired a deeper understanding of the physics involved with orbits. This classic book was written contemporaneously with the Apollo program, and therefore has a dated feel. But I find it very interesting nevertheless.

Categories: Space Exploration

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Stick and Rudder
by Wolfgang Langewiesche

The classic introduction on flying. I started reading this soon after I opened it at Christmas, and I could not put it down. I was enthralled by all the a-ha moments as Langewiesche explained the theory of flight in pilot's terms.

Categories: Aviation

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Labyrinths
by Jorge Luis Borges

I picked up this collection of short stories in preparation for our trip to Argentina, but quickly found that the only connection is that Borges was born in that country. Indeed, I had guessed that, and I already knew that he is regarded as one of the world's greatest authors. I have read all of the stories in this book, and find it remarkable how much Borges influenced Eco. His "Library of Babel" for instance, is undeniably the prototype for the library in The Name of the Rose.

Categories: Literature

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Moby-Dick
by Herman Melville

Inspired by our trip to the coast of Maine and its rich maritime heritage, I yearned for a nautical adventure in my next book. This much-heralded classic by Melville fit the bill perfectly. This book has it all: a classic adventure story, a detailed description of whaling, legendary characters, and rich philosophical content. I finished the book around the same time I finished my Trans-Tahoe 2005 movie, and I could not help but identify similarites between that struggle and the struggle of Ahab.

Categories: Literature

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The Maine Woods
by Henry David Thoreau

We've been mulling a trip to Maine for our honeymoon, so naturally I thumbed through the literature section of the guidebook for good mood-setting books. I had never read any Thoreau, and I was intrigued by the era in which he writes, so I chose The Maine Woods. It's been sitting on my shelf for the past month or so while I obsessed over math books. But for our flight to Chicago, part of this grand year of weddings, I intended to read something other than theorems. Theorems to Thoreau. This book is essentially comprised of three travel journals, each documenting an excursion into the wild woods of Maine. On the flight, I read the first journal about his trip to Ktaadn, the highest peak in the state. This is high adventure, including (friendly) encounters with Indians, poling and portaging upriver, trout fishing, camping on leaf beds, and finally riding the rapids and falls back to town. The way of travel he endorses, though unfit for a honeymoon, is so appealing - it ignites in me a desire to get wild in the woods somewhere, sometime soon. I've also read the next adventure, which documents a moose-hunting trip. The compelling subject matter is enhanced by Thoreau's occasional philosophical observations. Great stuff.

Categories: Literature, World Travel

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The Mathematical Tourist
by Ivars Peterson

I've always been fascinated with mathematics, maybe because my mathematician father taught me numbers concurrently with words. Reading Fermat's Enigma reignited a passion for learning the ways of numbers. Longing for more, I picked up this book, which I already had on the shelf for some reason. Peterson writes his book sort of like travel literature, breaking up the world of mathematics into the islands of Analytica, Topologica, Statland, and such. In each of these areas, Peterson explains the basic ideas and their applications. I'm finding it very interesting and an ideal place to begin a deeper expedition into one or more of these intriguing regions of modern math.
 
Update - I enjoyed the first few chapters on number theory, topological surfaces, and knots, but lost interest as the book went on to fractals. I was so intrigued that I bought two meatier books on number theory and topology. Currently I'm struggling with the foundations of point-set topology in Gamelin & Greene's Introduction to Topology. I'll spare my audience and not list further math books. Soon I want to get back into some fiction.

Categories: Mathematics

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Fermat's Enigma
by Simon Singh

This book tells the story of one of the greatest mathematical puzzles ever encountered in history: Fermat's Last Theorem. The problem is fairly simple: prove that for powers n greater than 2, the equation xn + yn = zn has no solutions where x, y, and z are positive integers. Legendary mathematician Pierre de Fermat claimed in the margin of his copy of Diophantus to have discovered a proof, but no one has ever found his proof, and for over 300 years all attempts to derive one have failed. Well, in 1993 this all changed with the culmination of over seven years of struggle by Princeton professor Andrew Wiles. I was surprised by Singh's literary style - I expected either a dry math book or an informal cliché-ridden text by a pulp-author. Singh held my interest firmly through passages about various figures and adventures in the mythos of mathematics, from Pythagoras to Newton, and Euler to Taniyama and Shimura. And I have to say I'm still a little proud that I independently formulated Euler's (false) conjecture concerning the Last Theorem. Reading this book has inspired me to learn more - the mark of a great book.

Categories: Mathematics

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The Luftwaffe War Diaries
by Cajus Bekker

My interests in aviation and the Second World War come together in this book, which chronicles the missions and the men who carried them out. I began reading this a couple years ago, but found it difficult to keep track of all the German organizational and military terms. Upon picking it up again, I found such details not at all difficult to manage, and I was pleasantly suprised by Bekker's narrative style. He doesn't just give you the facts - he throws in some real dialogue, character sketches, and his own opinions to turn it into a fine story. Nearly all the WWII movies produced in recent years portray the Germans as savage animals. And while it's unquestionably true that they engaged in some of the worst brutality in history, it's all to easy to forget that they were real people, and in total just as decent as any other people. I would be thrilled to see a film adaptation of some thread presented in Bekker's book, say a biopic of Adolf Galland, or maybe Hans-Joachim Marseille.

Categories: Aviation, History

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The Name of the Rose
by Umberto Eco

This is Eco's first novel, and from what I've read is widely considered his best. In fact, it was made into a movie starring Sean Connery (I can almost hear him say "What izh the name of the rozh?", but I doubt he says that). It tells the story of a monk who has been called upon to prepare an Italian abbey for a papal legation. Just before the monk, William of Baskerville, and his ward arrive, however, Brother Adelmo is found dead below the abbey's walls. The abbot directs William to investigate the mysterious death. Over the course of novel, other monks are murdered, and a sinister plot is revealed. I found this novel to be just about perfect. Well written like Eco's other works, with a carefully architected and compelling plot, infused with historical authenticity, and ultimately a vehicle for arguing (I believe) Eco's own philosophical viewpoints. Simply outstanding. Read it - just don't get discouraged by Eco's propensity for minutiae or polyglotism.

Categories: Literature

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Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree
by Tariq Ali

Eco really turned me on to historical fiction. Yearning for a different voice, I found Tariq Ali's Islam quartet. The first novel in the series is this one, about a noble muslim family dealing with the fall of Moorish Spain at the end of the 15th century. I found it both very beautifully written and compelling to my curious nature. With the Islamic world dominating current events, this seems a timely read. Ali masterfully puts his reader in the shoes of his characters - the tragic finale (I'm not giving anything away - this is historical fiction!) hit me hard - I sincerely felt the pain that the Banu Hudayl suffered in the novel. I will definitely continue the series - The Book of Saladin is the second (unconnected) in the quartet. I recommend this to anyone who enjoys European history.

Categories: Literature

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War and Peace
by Leo Tolstoy

I began reading this with the intent of finishing the entire 1450-page tome. I found that I just couldn't do it. The first couple-hundred pages were fairly easy, and quite interesting. I was intrigued by this tale of the old Russian nobility and the war against Napoleon. Before I finished the first book, I felt as if I were the allied forces, slogging through the mire of war-torn Europe. I needed a break... but I will return to the Rostovs, the Bolkonskys, and Signor Buonaparte.

Categories: Literature

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Project Orion
by George Dyson

This is a very readable account of Project Orion, which was a real plan put forth by American scientists to build a spaceship that propelled itself using nuclear bombs. Dyson, son of prominent physicist Freeman Dyson, who worked on the project in its early stages, writes masterly about the rise and fall of the project, weaving in hundreds of accounts from the scientists who were there. An intriguing read that makes you wonder what could have been if Orion were allowed to develop.

Categories: Space Exploration

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Baudolino
by Umberto Eco

The latest from Umberto Eco (translated into English anyway - his latest novel, La misterosa fiamma della regina Loana, has yet to be translated) is a magical tale of an Italian peasant who purports to have played a part in just about every historical event of the late 12th century. The story begins with an aged Baudolino disrupting the sack of Constantinople in the 4th Crusade, and rescuing a Byzantine historian in the process. The stories he tells Niketas the historian proceed from unlikely to clearly ridiculous, but the whole adventure is tremendous fun. And as usual, Eco packs his skilled prose with historical fact and flavor. After reading three of his novels, I have to say Eco just might be my favorite author. Baudolino is highly recommended!

Categories: Literature

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The Island of the Day Before
by Umberto Eco

The third novel by Eco is often maligned as his worst. I must disagree. In many ways, this is my favorite of the three I've read (the other two being Baudolino and Foucault's Pendulum). In any case, these novels all offer drastically different value to the reader, so it is dubious to compare them. The Island of the Day Before is a beautiful book, both in the way it is written, and in the story that it tells. The story is about Roberto della Griva, an Italian who finds adventure in fragmented 17th-century Italy and France. After he falls for a lady of high stature, he finds himself on a ship, on a mission to discover the secret of longitude. Along the way he is haunted by a mysterious twin brother Ferrante, and the memories of his father and past loves. Eco not only researches and presents historical facts to make his tales real, he also draws his characters authentically, giving them the superstitions and prejudices of the day. Highly recommended!

Categories: Literature

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A Man on the Moon
by Andrew Chaikin

Chaikin somehow distilled the decade of Apollo into a non-fiction book that reads like fiction. Instead of merely conveying the history of Apollo, Chaikin submerses you in it, with dramatic passages describing launch, docking, landing, and such, and pages of character sketch. This made an already highly interesting subject even more enthralling, as he introduces a select cast from the thirty men who went up there. And the authenticity is ensured, as each chapter has pages of notes in the back referring to Chaikin's sources, which were often interviews with the astronauts themselves.

Categories: Space Exploration

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Fighter Combat: Tactics and Maneuvering
by Robert L. Shaw

I bought this book to learn the basics of fighter combat for use in the virtual skies of WWII Fighters and other simulators. It's all here, at times a bit dry, but generously peppered with poignant quotes from the legends of air combat. My favorite: "There are only two types of aircraft - fighters and targets."

Categories: Aviation

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Rod Machado's Private Pilot Handbook
by Rod Machado

This massive book is filled with just about everything a budding pilot needs to know, at least that's how it appears from this budding pilot's perspective. It's also written in an entertaining, humorous style, which keeps a subject in danger of becoming dry interesting.

Categories: Aviation

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The Conquest of Gaul
by Gaius Julius Caesar

This book was assigned as reading for my third year Latin class. A few years ago, I picked it back up, and read it all. Caesar's style is very precise and seemingly neutral. I've kicked around the idea over the years of reading his original text - even going so far as to resume studying the language in preparation for such an undertaking.

Categories: History


"'So many books... have you read them all?' 'No, these are the ones I have to read by the end of the month. I keep the others in my office.'" - Umberto Eco