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On The First Day of Holiday Giving – Neal’s Books For The Guys in Your Life

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What follows is a list, in no particular order, of twelve books I’ve read or re-read in the past year that I recommend to others, particularly those of the male persuasion. You might want to give one as a gift. Caveat emptor: this is a highly idiosyncratic list. As a participant in three book clubs, I have read books that I’d otherwise never have opened.  Some of them are newly published; some not.  I lean towards historical accounts (biographies, memoirs, popular accounts, and academic treatises). At the same time, I like scientific and off-beat books. So, here on the first day of holiday giving are Neal’s books for the guy in your life.

  1. DemagogueLarry Tye, Demagogue: The Life and Long Shadow of Senator Joe McCarthy. A recent biographer of the villainous McCarthy, Tye relies heavily on previously unread archives relating to the controversial Commie hunter. It’s a timely and meticulous study that traces definite parallels between the Senator and President Trump.


  1. The Savage Wars of PeaceMax Boot, The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power. Former Wall Street Journal writer Boot provides trenchant analyses of America’s nearly continuous small wars from the Barbary Pirates ( 1801-05) to the present day.  Savage Wars has become a primer used at the nation’s military academies and war colleges.  Buy the second edition.


  1. The Stoic ChallengeWilliam B. Irvine, The Stoic Challenge: A Philosopher’s Guide to Becoming Tougher, Calmer, and More Resilient. Based on the first-century life and work of Epictetus, Irvine offers an updating of applied Stoicism for the 21st century. Practicing Stoicism is not the same as being a stoic.  Generally, stoics have not read Epictetus, or they haven’t absorbed his actual teachings.


  1. DirtBill Buford, Dirt: Adventures in Lyon as a Chef in Training, Father, and Sleuth Looking for the Secret of French Cooking. By the author of well-known, Heat, this funny, insightful, engaging book concentrates on French cuisine. An American journalist, Buford, is besotted by all kinds of food. Here you will learn what it’s like to work in an excellent French restaurant.  Not for sissies.


  1. The Year of PerilTracy Campbell, The Year of Peril: America in 1942. Campbell takes as his topic those crucial social, economic, and political events that threatened to splinter the US from within during the year after Pearl Harbor. He shows how the war became a total war, one that eventually mobilized most adult civilian Americans, one that struggled to achieve the home-front unity we sometimes assume.  Not an easy read, but a deeply informed and informative one.


  1. A Woman of No ImportanceSonia Purnell, A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World II.  If you like spy thrillers, here’s a historical biography based on incomplete but compelling evidence. Purnell’s premise is simple: how a one-legged, multi-lingual American woman became a crucial leader of the French Resistance during World War II and became a founding agent of the CIA. Wow!


  1. OriginsLewis Dartnell, Origins: How Earth’s History Shaped Human History. I recommended this book to a university mining engineer professor.  He read it and said that it should be required reading for every student in the Mackay School of Mines.  It’s brilliant. Enough said.



  1. Blood and ThunderHampton Sides, Blood and Thunder. When I was nine years old, I read a children’s biography of Kit Carson.  I’ve been hooked ever since.  This one is a classic biography of the Pathfinder, warts and all. And, if you are like me, you will perhaps learn more about Native American history of the Southwest than all you knew previously.


  1. What If?Randall Munroe, What if?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions. Some members of one of my book clubs are real scientists, e.g., geologists, biochemists.  They can smell scientific BS before they open the covers of a purported science book.  This one passed the olfactory test.  So, what WOULD happen from a scientific point of view if you could pull the plug on the Pacific Ocean and let all the water drain out?


  1. The Splendid and the VileErik Larson, The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz. Even Churchill aficionados will be charmed by the newest book by Erik Larson.  He includes nearly every Churchillian anecdote—apocryphal, mythical, and real—and tells them in a vivid, entertaining way.  In addition, he uses the illegally written diaries of one of WSC’s secretaries to show in detail what that experience was like. Graceful and exciting study of the political and family personalities surrounding the Great Man.


  1. The BodyBill Bryson, The Body: A Guide for OccupantsSome people like Bill Bryson; some don’t.  I do.  I find that he digs to the roots of complex subjects in a compelling prose using non-specialist language.  The body in question here is the human body.  As a biological illiterate, I found myself having Aha! moments on nearly every page. It’s a bookend to Dartnell’s Origins and a complement to Y.N. Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.


  1. ConsolationsDavid Whyte, Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment, and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words. Whyte, poet and philosopher, has written an alphabetical compendium of provocative and thoughtful and oft surprising commentaries on fifty common English words.  They may encourage self-reflection in those not customarily inclined towards that indulgence.


***And if there were 14 days of Christmas (or Holiday Gift Giving)***


  1. Desert SolitaireEdward Abbey, Desert Solitaire. I have had the occasion to re-read this classic 1968 autobiography of a park ranger in Arches National Monument (now a national park). It is as fresh now as it was when I read it circa 1970. Even if you have never visited Arches, his extraordinary descriptions of all things animal, mineral, vegetable, atmospheric, and human bring Arches to life.  If you are already a Desert Rat, you may better understand why you are after reading this elegant but earthy perspective.


  1. The Sports GeneDavid Epstein, The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance. There’s no such thing as a born NBA star or world-class marathoner, but genes definitely help.  Different genes provide some potential for you to become one or the other.  Personally, I could never have been either, but I probably could have been a scratch golfer except for the other side of the equation.  Practice. Would 10,000 hours of practice between the ages of 12 and 15 have helped me?  Maybe.  Epstein deconstructs the nature-nurture conundrum with respect to athletics in clear, comprehensive, and satisfying terms.   –  Neal Ferguson

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