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May 5, 2011

Three Books in a Storm

by brainoids

Very little can be said to have been “good” about the brutal Alabama tornado outbreak of 27 April 2011.  I was fortunate enough to come through unscathed both in body and property, inconvenienced only by five days without power.  In a “glass half full” sort of way, five powerless days and public entreaties to stay out of the way of recovery efforts did have one upside: I got to catch up on quite a bit of reading.  Below are some drive-by reviews of an odd assortment of pent up reading material.

The Man Who Ran the Moon: James E. Webb, NASA, and the Secret History of Project Apollo

4 of 5 stars

Readers will find little new in “The Man Who Ran the Moon” (nothing in the way of a “secret history”), although its focus on an often-overlooked but central figure in the Apollo program – NASA Administrator James Webb – is a welcome supplement to the popular histories of the era. Webb’s views on the organization and management of the newborn agency are almost as interesting as his political dealings through the 1960s. The complex interplay between aerospace contractors and the Federal government is also given more exposure than conventional in popular texts.

A quick and easy read, “The Man Who Ran the Moon” is a worthwhile diversion for anyone interested in the history of NASA as an organization or the Apollo program itself, as well as public administration in general and Cold War-era beliefs about technocracies and their role in society.

Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food

4 of 5 stars

I received this book as a gift from my brother, a far greater “afishionado” (groan) of all things finned than I. I’ll confess it sat idle for a while in the “medium priority” layer of my stack of reading material. It should have been higher.

Fitting comfortably in the “microhistory of a natural resource” new genre of books, “Four Fish” succeeds by drawing together and interweaving compelling personal, historical, economic and ecological narratives. Greenberg tackles difficult and tangled questions of sustainability of the oceans, but leaves readers with enough of a clear narrative and grasp of the issues to begin to form their own, informed, opinions. (This is no easy feat, and one that would have been fumbled by less competent authors).

One of the most interesting (and unexpected) turns is the treatment of aquaculture – domestication of wild species of fish – and its long term viability. The coverage is both balanced and deep. Greenberg also raises uncomfortable but compelling points about the disconnect between Western consumers’ faith in the power of the market, vs the realities of firm policy.

Even if you are only glancingly interested in the topic of “things with fins” (as I was) – this book is worth a try.

The Silk Road: Two Thousand Years in the Heart of Asia

3 of 5 stars

My interest in central Asia has been piqued since a recent homestay trip in Mongolia. Since then, the “-istan’s”, for me hidden behind the opacity of the Cold War for most of my life, have been a source of mild intrigue. Reading “The Silk Road” has added significant color – if not necessarily clarity – to my familiarity with the tangled history of the region.

The book is readable, if not necessarily fully accessible, to non-academics, presuming significant familiarity with the region and its peoples (both past and present). While not “lavishly” illustrated, it certainly draws from an eclectic sample of material which keeps the interest level up. Descriptions and details are rich. The historical narrative is far from linear, and overall the book would have benefitted from a greater use of maps than the single, stylized map in the front matter.   Quite honestly, if it had not be for the power outage, it would have taken me many more weeks to plod through this text, as I had struggled for three weeks’ worth of nightly reading to make it only halfway through.

I wouldn’t recommend this book as a casual read, although for fans of history – specifically multicultural and oft-overlooked corners of world history – it may be worth the plunge.

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