Here's a list of books I've read.
Most titles are historical non-fiction, which seems to be my favorite subject.
Perhaps the most personally significant book in this list is Into Thin Air, which renewed my interest in reading. It is so well written - you are there with the climbers - that I now read voraciously in the hopes of finding another such gem (and I've found several!)
Books are listed by my rating, best to worst [Click here to list the books in the order that I read them, latest first]
Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster
by Jon Krakauer
I had always thought it would be kinda interesting to climb Everest. Not any more. The hardships, risks, and penalties for failure are vividly brought to life in this recounting of a catastrophic assault on the mountain. Krakauer, an experienced climber, survived to describe what happens when things go wrong in a place where the human body is not intended to be. This book is riveting - I read it in one sitting! If you like this book, also check out The Climb and Eiger Dreams.
Two Years Before the Mast: A Personal Narrative of Life at Sea
by Richard Henry Dana
Dana drops out of Harvard in 1834 for medical reasons and decides to recuperate by signing on to a California-bound ship as a working sailor. His depiction of the life of the average 19th century sailor is a sobering as his description of pre-Gold Rush California is wonderful. As a native Californian, I could clearly picture the locations he describes and envision them as they were in Dana's time, nearly 200 years ago.
Path Between The Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914
by David McCullough
The story of the monumental engineering task of creatng a waterway thru the isthmus of Central America, mostly by sheer determination. Unlike many similar books, this one has a good balance betwen the political and technical sides of the endeavor. If you're really interested in canal building, Parting the Desert is an interesting follow-on, though it's not as good as this book.
by David McCullough
The story of a dam which failed and destroyed an entire city. McCullough does a great job describing the development of Johnstown (PA), the compound causes that led to the dam's failure, and the buildup to the failure itself in May of 1889. Then, once the dam bursts, the ensuing disaster is beyond imagination: Railroad locomotives running full-out in a (losing) attempt to escape the massive wall of water, people riding uprooted houses downstream as they disintegrate, and finally a huge, burning pile of debris chock full of half-drowned, half-burned, screaming victims.
Into Africa: The Epic Adventures of Stanley and Livingstone
by Martin Dugard
Recounts of Livingstone's quest to find the source of the Nile, how he became stranded in the center of Africa, and Stanley's search for him. It's a story that everyone's heard of, but I never knew the details. Great 19th century British Empire stuff!
Seabiscuit: An American Legend
by Laura Hillenbrand
Ok, so they made a movie about it, and if you see the movie before reading the book, you'll think that it's a cliche' ending that Hollywood invented to sell movie tickets. But the story is true, and the book is better than the movie could ever hope to be, so read the book! Though ostensibly a biography of the horse, it's as much a biography of Seabiscuit's jockey Red Pollard, his owner Charles Howard, and an interesting time in America when a horse could travel the country in his own private railcar and attract huge crowds at every stop. Don't let the horse-racing aspect discourage you - I hate horse-racing but loved the book!
Shadow Divers: The True Adventure of Two Americans Who Risked Everything to Solve One of the Last Mysteries of World War II
by Robert Kurson
A pair of deep-water SCUBA divers find a sunken WW2 sub off the coast of New Jersey, and become obsessed with identifying it even though it might kill them. It reads a lot like Krakauer's Into Thin Air - a real page-turning adventure. If you enjoy this, as a follow-on you should read Iron Coffins.
In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex
by Nat Philbrick
Forget Moby Dick. This is the true story that inspired Melville to write his more famous book, and it has everything: Nantucket, sailing, whales, the Pacific, shipwreck, and cannibalism.
Tuxedo Park : A Wall Street Tycoon and the Secret Palace of Science That Changed the Course of World War II
by Jennet Conant
A biography of Alfred Loomis, a wall street tycoon and private inventor who was improbably the most pivotal man in America's WW2 radar-development program (which put an abrubt halt to Germany's airborne invasion of Britan, and by some accounts set the turning point in WW2). This book is more about people and events than science, though the scientifically-minded will find plenty of interesting stuff.
A Storm in Flanders: The Ypres Salient, 1914-1918: Tragedy and Triumph on the Western Front
by Winston Groom
More than a book about war, this is about the environment that the soldiers on both sides, mostly in their late teens, had to endure. The book focuses on the action in and around the town of Ypres ("ee-pray"), which is situated on some high ground (a "salient") in Flanders (Belgium). Modern technology (eg: the machine gun) overwhelmed ages-old (and horribly archaic) military theory, resulting in stalemate and incredible carnage.
Note: Winston Groom also wrote Forrest Gump; hopefully his book is better than that dreadful movie!
by Alfred Lansing
Say that you set out to reach the South Pole. Upon reaching Antarctica, your ship is trapped then crushed by the ice. It's 1914 and you have no way of getting help. Now what do you do? Read how Ernest Shackleton, stranded at the end of the world, saved his entire party - and a large number of glass-plate photographs! - through courage and determination.
The Long Walk
by Slavomir Rawicz
Polish military officer Rawicz is captured by the Russians and is sent to a Siberian Gulag. Rawicz decides to escape by walking - walking - 2000 miles South to British-occupied India. An incredible story. Oh, and he sees a Yeti along the way...
Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis Thomas Jefferson and the Opening of the American West
by Stephen Ambrose
A very engaging account of Lewis and Clark's journey across the American Far West and back. Through Ambrose's description you can almost feel the vast wilderness through which they travelled.
I didn't read the book (by Ambrose), but be sure to rent the Band Of Brothers miniseries on video/DVD. The 10 1-hour episodes (produced by HBO) are excellent.
Finally, skip Ambrose's Nothing Like It In the World. which rambles and rehashes and is ultimately a poor read (VERY uncharacteristic of Ambrose).
D Day: June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II
by Stephen Ambrose
The buildup to and execution of the Allies' WW2 invasion of Normandy. The US and Britan pretty much bet the house on the largest sea-borne invasion ever attempted, and the logistics were as monumental as the ensuing operation was bloody and chaotic.
The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge
by David McCullough
I've seen and read a few things about the Brooklyn Bridge, so I was prepared to be underwhelmed by this book. But it's great! McCullough creates a great story by intertwining it with the biographies of the bridge's designer, John Roebling, and his son (who inherited the project) Washington. They succeeded by pushing the day's technology to it's limit, putting their faith in massive amounts of both old (stone) and new (steel) materials.
Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World
by Mark Kurlansky
Despite the funky title, this is an improbably great book about the impact of perhaps the most important fish in human history. It's also a tale of the human trait of pursuing a resource to it's destruction. Also by Kurlansky is Salt, which is along the same lines as Cod, but I found to be just OK. Only consider reading Salt if you find Cod to be fantastic (which I did).
Tulipomania: The Story of the World's Most Coveted Flower & the Extraordinary Passions It Aroused
by Mike Dash
In the mid-1600's, Holland became obsessed with tulips. People went crazy buying them, and paid incredible prices to own new breeds. Ordinary folks, who knew nothing about the flowers, threw their life savings into get-rich-quick schemes, and everyone was desperate to "get in on it" even though they had little idea of what "it" was. Then, overnight, it all crashed, leaving many people ruined. Though unintentional, the story could just as well be about the dot-com craze of the late 1990's (which makes it even more interesting - human nature doesn't change).
Iron Coffins: A Personal Account of the German U-Boat Battles of World War II
by Herbert A. Werner
WW2 sub warfare told by a German U-Boat captain. It's unbelievable that people would go to sea in those things, but they did, and most of them died. This is a good follow-on to Shadow Divers. I also highly recommend that you watch the newly released "Director's Cut" of Das Boot (yes all 216 minutes!) after reading this.
Skeletons on the Zahara: A True Story of Survival
by Dean King
Shipwrecked on the west coast of Africa in 1815, a group of American sailors are taken into slavery and are dragged back and forth across the Sahara Desert by their Arab captors, looking for a chance to escape. A great adventure story.
by Mike Dash
The story of the Dutch East India Company's ship Batavia that shipwrecked on an uncharted Australian atoll en route to the Spice Islands (modern-day Indonesia), resulting in large-scale mayhem among the survivors marooned in an unknown corner of the world. I particularly enjoyed the author's depiction of early 17th century Holland, the incredibly profitable trade in spices, and early "industrial" scale sea travel.
If you like this book, also check out Tulipomania, also by Mike Dash.
Into The Wild
by Jon Krakauer
Krakauer follows Christopher McCandless, a recent college grad who chucks it all and begins a wandering trek to Alaska, where he's eventually found dead, way out in the wilderness, in an abandoned bus. The investigation of his trek to Alaska is both fascinating and disturbing.
Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers
by Mary Roach
A witty investigation into the scientific uses of cadavers. It's all here - car crashes, broken bones, gunshot wounds, medical dissection - and despite the seemingly macabre subject it's a fun read.
Transatlantic: Samuel Cunard, Isambard Brunel, and the Great Atlantic Steamships
by Stephen Fox
A good history of the evolution of steamships, from the development of the first rudimentary steam engines to the incredibly large and luxurious floating hotels of the first half of the 20th century (after WW2 the airplane killed them nearly overnight).
by David McCullough
At 1100+ pages, this book is a marathon read. But all the pages are relevant, and you come away with an understanding of a relatively simple man who fell into the Presidancy during several of this country's most critical moments. Truman's life spans a transition from a rural Missouri farm to the world's most powerful person, making him the quintessential American story. I also came to understand the political foundation for the modern Democratic Party - Truman taking a decent, responsible approach to some unpopular issues - and how it's been squandered by the more recent focus on marginal, largely irrelevant issues.
In the Empire of Genghis Khan
by Stanley Stewart
The author sets out to retrace the path of Ghengis Khan, who, in the 12th century, conquered an empire that ranged from China to Moscow to Baghdad, and was on the verge of attacking Western Europe when he stopped and returned home. The book is a good read of travelling thru former Soviet states and the attempts by and results of both China and the USSR to dominate Mongolia.
Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before
by Tony Horwitz
I was hoping to read about Cook's travels in a fashion similar to Pirate Hunter. Instead, what I got was two stories - one of Cook's exploits, the other of the author's descriptions of the modern-day ramifications of Cook's actions. I've been to Tahiti and the author is dead-on when he describes it as a paradise spoiled by the White Man.
The Bounty: The True Story of the mutiny on the Bounty
by Caroline Alexander
We all know the about the Mutiny on the Bounty and have probably seen the movies, but this book gives the reader a sense of why it happened. I found Bligh's post-mutiny experience to be very interesting, especially because he finally lands in Batavia (then a Dutch fort, now Jakarta, Indonesia), which seems to have been an important crossroads in seafaring days - Batavia also figures heavily in Krakatoa, Batavia's Graveyard and Tulipomania.
Pirate Hunter: The True Story of Captain Kidd
by Richard Zacks
Kidd, an accomplished sailor, decides to seek fame and (mostly) fortune by setting out as a privateer - a pirate hunter commissioned by the British government. However, along the way, his objectives and reputation get muddled and things don't turn out as Kidd had planned. Zacks' portrayal of Kidd succeeds in keeping the reader unsure about Kidd's actions... did he or did he not cross the line and become the very pirate that he was chartered to hunt?
by William Burrows
Though somewhat dated (written in 1986 and out of print), the air- and space-borne activities of the US intelligence community are fascinating. There's a lot of good history here - though the origins of airborne intelligence go back to the Civil War, things really got going in the late '50s as the Jet Age evolved into the Space Age. Primitive jet planes evolved into the Mach 4 Blackbird, simple satellites (which took photos on film which was parachuted back to earth!) evolved into fully real-time satellites that can read license plates. And beneath it all, this stuff is costing a fortune that is being hidden from public view by secret budgets. In the end, it seems that America won the Cold War because of economic depth - we outspent the Russians until they collapsed into bankruptcy. This book is loaded with technical info that may be too much for some readers, but if you find that stuff interesting, the book is fascinating.
Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War
by T. J. Stiles
I was expecting a Wild West tale. This book is much deeper, and more interesting, than that. It casts Jesse James not as a shoot-em-up gunfighter but rather as a defiant Confederate who, after losing the Civil War, turned vigilante and comitted his life to resisting the (Union) Government at every turn. The book also brings the pre- and post-Civil War "West" (Missouri) to life, illustrating the border-state strife in a way that my history teachers never did.
Ghost Soldiers: The Epic Account of World War II's Greatest Rescue Mission
by Hampton Sides
Early in the Pacific theater of WW2, the Japanese pushed the US out of the Phillipines, and a large contingent of US soldiers were stranded and captured by the Japanese. What followed was the Bataan Death March and, for the survivors, a POW death camp. In response, the US Army formed the Rangers and launched a long-shot rescue mission.
by David McCullough
Yet again, McCullough takes what could be a dusty subject and brings it to life. John Adams led a very interesting life during very interesting times. In a time when travel was difficult and risky, he traveled constantly - by ship to England and by horse to Philadelphia. Eventually he became one of the principal shapers of the then-new United States.
Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883
by Simon Winchester
Everyone's heard of Krakatoa, but I never knew exactly where it was, and I never knew of the magnitude of what happened. What DID happen makes any recent eruption (St. Helens, Pinatubo) seem tame. Coincidentally, I found the location to be an interesting tie-in with Batavia's Graveyard in that they both were affected by the same Indonesian city. The only negative is that I found the climactic eruption and ensuing wake of destruction less thrilling than that of, say, Johnstown Flood.
HEY,WAIT A MINUTE (I wrote a book!)
by John Madden
This is a FUN book, especially if you were a Raiders fan in the '70s (as I was, big time). The stories about football - and many other things - just roll out and you can't help but be amused. If you enjoy listening to Madden's TV analyses, you'll enjoy this book. If you're interested in Jerry Markbreit's Last Call, read that first and this second.
Eiger Dreams: Ventures Among Men and Mountains
by Jon Krakauer
An anthology of mountaineering stories, a great follow-on to Krakauer's Into Thin Air.
Parting the Desert: The Creation of the Suez Canal
by Zachary Karabell
I enjoyed Path Between The Seas so much that I thought I'd read about Ferdinand de Lesseps' prior work, the Suez Canal. I found this book to be long on politics and short on technology, which was OK, but the imbalance made it less enjoyable than Path.
Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly
by Anthony Bourdain
From humble beginnings to top New York reataurants, Bourdain explores the world we never see behind the kitchen doors: sometimes desperate, sometimes disgusting, often funny. Bourdain's got a pretty big ego - he seems quite serious about his Samurai Cook getup in the cover picture.
by Anatoli Boukreev
Boukreev is one of the guides that Krakauer is critical of in Into Thin Air. Partially a response to Krakauer's book, partially an alternate view on the same disastrous event, I found The Climb very interesting despite the common, perhaps redundant, subject matter. Whereas Krakauer's book is a smooth adventure story, Boukreev gives the reader an appreciation for the overwhelming logistics associated with mounting an assault on Everest. Well worth reading if you enjoyed Into Thin Air
A Thread Across the Ocean: The Heroic Story of the Transatlantic Cable
by John Steele Gordon
Interesting history of what it took to lay the first undersea telegraph cable between Scotland and Newfoundland (thus America and England). Unfortunately, this book (ie. the author's writing) lacks the drama of, say Path Between The Seas.
Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith
by Jon Krakauer
Krakauer dives into Mormon Fundamentalism. Just OK - Krakauer should stick to adventure writing, e.g. Into Thin Air or Into The Wild, which is where he really excels.
Salt: A World History
by Mark Kurlansky
After reading and loving Cod. I decided to read more from Mark Kurlansky. Unfortunately, Salt isn't as good as Cod. Though it's intresting, the book rambles a bit and in the end simply isn't as engaging. You should only consider reading Salt if you find Cod to be fantastic (which I did).
Nothing Like It In the World: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad 1863-1869
by Stephen Ambrose
Ambrose's chronicle of the building of the transcon railroad. It's an epic story, but poorly told here. The worst Ambrose book I've read (he's usually great).
Last Call: Memoirs of an NFL Referee
by Jerry Markbreit
Markbreit was one of the NFL's premier referees - he did all the big games in the '80s and '90s. But Markbriet himself is less interesting: an egomaniac who drove himself to the pinnacle of officialdom because he had something to prove. An appropriate subtitle could be "Let me tell you how great I am and I'll throw in a few football stories along the way". That said, there are several great football stories (eg. Dick Butkus in high school), but on balance, you'd need to be a hardcore football fan to enjoy this book. Instead, check out John Madden's HEY,WAIT A MINUTE (I wrote a book!).