The Imaginary Realms of
Gilbert M. Stack


History and Science

History and Science

Of Dice and Men by David M. Ewalt

I started playing Dungeon and Dragons in the sixth grade with the basic boxed set and quickly graduated to the Advanced Players Handbook and the related books. In eighth grade, I started gaming with a guy whose older brother had started playing in college and using the original books—Greyhawk, Blackmoor, etc. We were all very proud of that connection and considered ourselves to be second generation gamers. So it was with great excitement that I stumbled across this book on the history of Dungeon and Dragons by David M. Ewalt.

Ewalt’s greatest strength is that he provides a coherent history of the development of the game from its beginnings as a war game, to those early days in Gary Gygax’s basement, to the development of the first of many iterations of TSR, to the intense infighting within the company, and its eventual sale to Wizards of the Coast. He also traces the development of the game through multiple editions and the influence of major figures. He even goes into some of the spinoff events and talks about the scandals. Overall, he builds the case that the introduction of D&D was a transformational event in the history of playing games.

There is also a lot of Ewalt’s personal experiences with roleplaying games, which seems to be a necessary and expected part of any book of this nature. Gamers are storytellers and they love to share their stories as much as other people love hearing them. Those stories also permit Ewalt to give a little insight into the dynamics of game play and player interactions.

While I suspect that this book appeals much more to gamers than to the larger world, if you have some interest in the subject this isn’t a bad place to start. Of course, if you’re really curious about Dungeons and Dragons, the best way to learn about it is to join a game and start playing.

Dallas: A History of “Big D” by Michael V. Hazel

If all you know about Dallas came from the television series, you might want to take a look at this short history of the city. Starting with settlement of the area by Americans before the territory became part of the United States, Hazel walks the reader quickly through the development of the town/city—the arrival of different ethnic groups, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, the domination of the city by elite business men, the shocking assassination of John F. Kennedy, and the struggle to more honestly represent the diverse groups that compose modern Dallas. For a quick survey of a famous American city, this book does a fine job.

American Nations by Colin Woodard

American history is often presented as the friction between two poles—loyalist versus revolutionary, north versus south, Republican versus Democrats. The great strength of Colin Woodard’s American Nation is its development of multiple (eleven) culturally distinct groups of Americans whose values often conflict with each other and who have remained identifiable over the last four centuries. This concept resonates quite convincingly as Woodard walks the reader through American history from colonization until the present day (although most of the book focuses on the 17th to the 19th century).

A lot more work needs to be done on this concept, especially as it relates to the later periods, but I found the basic idea plausible. After all, neither the north or the south is monolithic and this concept helped to explore the more complex nature of both regions. The primary weakness probably comes from the tendency for Woodard to describe his eleven nations in the same monolithic terms. That problem could be resolved with further research and exploration. Overall, the book has given me a lot to think about.

Funny, You Don’t Look Autistic by Michael McCreary

Autism is an increasingly prevalent part of our world. If you don’t have an autistic member of your extended family, you almost certainly know someone who is autistic or has autism in their family. If you’re looking for an opportunity to gain some understanding into their experiences and relate them to your own life, this is a great place to start. After all, who hasn’t felt tremendously uncomfortable on occasion? Sitcoms are built around social awkwardness and feeling out of place. And with that same sort of self-conscious humor, Michael McCreary walks us through his own life from his initial diagnosis of autism, through his difficult school years, and into the start of his career as a standup comic. He has the remarkable gift of making you feel empathy while simultaneously making you laugh. It’s a remarkable talent that will help you through the genuinely tough times he also describes. McCreary is still young. I’ll look forward to him updating his story in a few years.

Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall

I always enjoy a chance to think about the way that the world is constructed physically and how that impacts geopolitics. Prisoners of Geography is a nice introduction to the topic for anyone who hasn’t thought about it very much. It’s also a nice quick overview of the geopolitics of the world. What it is not is a deep, insightful, account that will change the politics of nations or the way in which history is taught. It is not nearly in depth enough to have any hope of accomplishing that.

But as a brief overview, Prisoners of Geography is a pleasant, easy to digest guide. While there are plenty of little points to quibble with, I enjoyed the book over all.

Break Shot: My First 21 Years by James Taylor

Everyone knows at least a couple of songs by James Taylor. Fire and Rain, Carolina in My Mind, How Sweet It Is—the list gets really long when you stop and think about it. So when Audible offered a free copy of this short autobiography of Taylor’s early life, I was quite happy to take advantage of it. I really didn’t know anything about Taylor other than I like a lot of his music.

James Taylor was born to affluence but didn’t take well to his family’s plans for him. His childhood was clearly rough. He ended up in an asylum when people feared his depression could lead to suicide. Perhaps the best line of the book was when he said that the asylum fixed him not because of anything it did, but because being committed ended all of his family’s plans for him and gave him the freedom to seek out his own path through his music.

Taylor thinks of his music as therapy and I think any fan would benefit from learning what motivated the lyrics they love. For example, I had no idea that Fire and Rain was about a friend of Taylor’s who committed suicide. It makes total sense now that I know it. Maybe I never paid that much attention to the lyrics and just enjoyed the beautiful melody.

If you’re a fan of James Taylor, it’s hard to imagine how you wouldn’t enjoy this chance to better understand him and his music.

Into the Raging Sea by Rachel Slade

If you enjoyed The Perfect Storm you’ll find a lot to like in this chronicle of the loss of the El Faro. Instead of a fishing vessel, we look at a cargo ship which sinks in a hurricane due to the cost cutting neglect of the company that owned it, the failure of the U.S. government to apply safety regulations to old ships, and some very bad decisions on the part of the El Faro’s captain. It’s a very sad tale which Slade works hard to keep focused on the humans who lost their lives when the vessel sank. It also teaches quite a bit about the modern cargo business and its recent history.

American Titans by Michael Gray

Looking for a quick overview of some of America’s most famous titans of industry (or Robber Barons if you prefer that point of view)? American Titans opens with chapters on Cornelius Vanderbilt, John Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, and J.P Morgan giving quick but decent bios of each man. Then it moves into what I thought was the best part of the book—an analysis of how industrialism factored into the election of 1896 followed up by a look at the trustbuster, Theodore Roosevelt. Finally he wraps up with a quick look at Nicola Tesla whom I knew the least about and thus enjoyed the most. (Actually Gray finishes with a discussion of Thomas Jefferson, which was interesting even if I didn’t understand why he chose to include Jefferson and put him out of chronological order).

So Jefferson aside, if you’re looking for a quick survey of some of the men who helped to build modern corporate America, Americans Titans is a great place to start.

Emperors of the Deep by William McKeever

If everything you know about sharks comes from reading (or watching) Jaws, then you should treat yourself to this very different perspective on the apex predators of the oceans. It was a fascinating and educational read. I certainly won’t look at sharks the same way again, but that doesn’t mean I’m ready to go swimming with them either.

The Vietnam War Trivia Book by Bill O’Neil and Dwayne Walker

Looking for a quick overview of the Vietnam War? The Trivia Book series has produced another winner here. It’s a little shorter than I would have liked but still covers the major issues and events of the war as well as providing the context within which the fighting began. The things that makes these books stand out, however, are the short vignettes that add humanity to the larger discussions. If you’re curious about this period of history, this is a good way to get introduced to the topic.

I received this book for free in exchange for an honest review.

Joshua’s Country by Gerard de Marigny

I’ve always thought it was difficult to capture the spirit of the westerns set in the late nineteenth century in a twenty-first century tale, but Gerard de Marigny managed this feat in his short novel, Joshua’s Country. Joshua Jacob is an old man who struck me as being a little bit out of time. He is very much the sort of rancher you could find in a Louis L’Amour novel carving out a living for himself and his men and their families out in the great American west (in this case, Texas). When his grandson gets in trouble with ISIS insurgents in Iraq, Joshua is forced to look more closely at the relationship he forged with his now dead son and is trying to build with his grandson.

There is a lot of action in this novel and a dastardly set of villains ranging from terrorists, drug cartels and corrupt government officials. It’s all a lot of fun. De Marigny could have built this novel as a thriller or a simple action/adventure piece, but his decision to ground it in the western genre made it feel much more approachable and less over-the-top to me. Joshua has stepped out of the romanticized legends of the west. Character matters. Family matters. A man’s word matters. It made so many of his decisions and actions instantly credible. My only complaint is that I don’t see a sequel coming out of this story. It doesn’t need one.

I received this book from Audiobook Boom in exchange for an honest review.

This Cider Still Tastes Funny! by John Ford Sr.

When I was in high school I found a lot of enjoyment in backpacking on the Appalachian Trail and crawling around in caves with my friends. Thirty years later—not so much—but I still enjoy reading clever accounts of backwoods happenings. The sort of stories told by Patrick McManus, Bill Heavey and now John Ford. Unlike McManus and Heavey, Ford wasn’t a professional writer—he was a game warden in Maine, but his stories are just as entertaining. If you think you’d enjoy a good humored look at life trying to enforce the hunting laws, you should give this book a try.

I received this book from Audiobook Boom in exchange for an honest review.

The World War II Trivia Book by Dwayne Walker and Bill O’Neil

I am a big fan of the World War I Trivia Book and the World War II Trivia Book maintains the prior volume’s high standards. I’ve been reading about World War II for decades and I can’t think of a better way to introduce someone to the complicated mess that spiraled into the most destructive war in human history. The authors feed you the narrative like a seven-course meal, breaking it up in easy to follow themes and then further dividing into bite-sized sections that make digestion easy and enjoyable.

I already knew the basic narrative so I focused most strongly on the many vignettes—such morsels as the Battle of Stalingrad or examples of sacrifices made on the home front. The most moving sections had to do with the Holocaust—especially their discussions of Anne Frank.

If you’re looking for a quick introduction to World War II, this Trivia Book is a wonderful place to start. I’m going to continue with their history of Vietnam.

The World War I Trivia Book by Bill O’Neil

This may be the perfect introduction to World War I for the non-specialist. It’s fast moving, entertaining, and remarkably informative. World War I is a highly complex topic, but O’Neil brilliantly breaks it down into digestible nuggets covering an amazing amount of territory in just four hours of audiobook. Not only does he cover expected topics like the causes of the war and the big battles, he gets into a lot of the smaller but important factors in the war like why the U.S. was so reluctant to get involved and the background to the eruption of communism in Russia.

If you’re interested in history but tend to find the typical scholarly monograph overly dry, this is a great book for you. When you’re finished you’ll have a general understanding of the war and its causes, plus it’s entertaining enough that you’ll be sad when you’re done.

The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger

I read this book the first time shortly after it was published and thoroughly enjoyed it. A couple of decades later it was just as good. On the surface, this is a strange idea. It’s an attempt to describe a horrifically powerful storm that struck the Atlantic off the northeast coast and sank a fishing boat, killing its crew. In reality it’s a window into the highly dangerous world of deep-sea fishing with in-depth analysis of the dangers the men and women in the trade encounter. Along the way it throws in a history of the industry, descriptions of the lives of the fishers, and a lot of information on storms and the coast guard rescue operations. This is a very interesting book.

Masters of War: History’s Greatest Strategic Thinkers by Andrew Wilson

This Great Courses series offers brief overview of the thoughts of many of those great military minds you’ve doubtless heard of but don’t really know anything about—Thucydides, Sun Tzu, Machiavelli, Jomini, Clausewitz, and more. These are men who built the foundations of strategic thinking in the military world and its interweaving with political thinking. It’s a fascinating discussion made more so as author, Andrew Wilson, adds into the conversation the advances in warfare—steam navies, air power, nuclear weapons, terrorism—that forced strategic thinkers to evolve their views. As an added bonus, he covers not only some of the major battles of history—Midway, the Peloponnesian War, Napoleon’s Campaigns—but a number of smaller but equally fascinating military actions such as the War for Irish Independence and the Algerian War for Independence. If you’ve an interest in the development of strategic thinking in the military, I think you’ll find this an engrossing overview.

The Wild Heart of Stevie Nicks by Rob Sheffield

I used to think I was a pretty strong Stevie Nicks fan back in my college years. I’m not much of a concert goer, but one of the three I’ve been to was Stevie Nicks. I had all her albums up to that time, knew tons of the lyrics by heart, and knew it was only a matter of time until she got inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Then I came across this Audible Original and realized that for me Stevie Nicks was just a passing phase. Rob Sheffield has been breathing Stevie’s air for his entire life and he clearly thinks in her lyrics. The whole book could almost be described as stringing versus from her various songs together to make a narrative whole. And what a narrative it is. If you’ve any interest in Stevie or Fleetwood Mac this book is a must listen. Everyone knows that the band had romantic problems—hookups and breakups—during the making of Rumors, but I had no idea just how long lasting and how crazy the drug-fueled romantic madness really was.

Through it all, Stevie’s strong voice resonates as Sheffield successfully articulates why she is so important to rock and roll and why her music continues to resonate with so many fans. I’m very glad I stumbled across this book.

Comet by Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan

The science fiction lover in me drives me to read the occasional popular science text such as A Brief History of Time or Comet by Sagan and Druyan. This is an excellent survey of our understanding of comets for the non-specialist. It opens with a long historiography of the ancient, medieval and early modern world’s view of comets as harbingers of disaster. Then moves into the scientists who evolved our current understanding of these fascinating celestial bodies. Halley and Newton stood out most strongly to me, but they were by no means the only ones. The book winds up with explorations of the probable impact (pun intended) of comets on the development of our planet and the life upon it. If you’ve any curiosity about any of these issues, you’re likely to greatly enjoy Comet.   

How Great Science Fiction Works by Gary K. Wolfe

Despite the title, this Great Courses work was really an entertaining and informative history of science fiction starting with its debatable origins (Wolfe convinced me that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein deserves the designation of first science fiction novel), then walking us through the many of the great early writers (Wells, Verne and Poe) before spending the rest of the lectures discussing icons of the genre (the spaceship, the planet, the robot, etc.) or movements within the field (the Golden Age, Cyberpunk, etc.), and later influential editors and authors (Campbell, Heinlein, Asimov, Butler, etc.). Overall I consider it to be a great overview of the field and I very much enjoyed listening to it.

I do have a couple of—“complaints” seems too strong a word so perhaps we should call them constructive suggestions. I recognize that some works have had tremendous influence, but part of why I listen to a series of lectures like this is to be introduced to as large a variety of great texts as possible. Therefore, I would have preferred that Wolfe minimize the number of times he referred to the same book across lectures. I also wish someone would fix the table of contents in the audible version as many chapter titles are connected to the wrong lectures (i.e. lecture 10 actually links to lecture 21) which makes it hard to review a lecture after you have passed it.

I’d like to end on a more positive note. One of the great delights of listening to a series like this is hearing about books and authors I know and have read. So I appreciated greatly the many times that Wolfe would say things like, “Of course there are many more feminist science fiction writers than I have time to explore here. Authors like…” and he would rattle off ten names. I enjoyed seeing where authors whose works I love fit into the larger schema of science fiction. And that, in summation, is really what this lecture series is about—showing how the authors in the field have influenced each other and caused science fiction to grow and diversify into the genre it is today.

Ireland: A History from the Twelfth Century to the Present Day by Paul Johnson

This a quick history of the complex struggle for Irish independence—a subject I do not know as much about as I would like to. It starts with a swift overview of Ireland and England in the Middle Ages which showed what I considered to be a moment or two of clear English bias by the author. For example, Johnson states that the introduction of English law benefited everyone in Ireland—an assertion many would argue with. The Irish had a well-developed legal system that was complicated but governed their affairs well into the period of English conquest. It was remarkably different than the English justice system, but that does not mean that many were not well-served by it. The English system was administered by the English and biased in favor of English (and later Protestant) subjects. It’s hard to say with a straight face that all the Irish benefited from the transition to the new legal system.

Similarly, I felt that Johnson went out of his way to justify the slaughter of Irish garrisons and civilian populations by Cromwell—beyond simply setting a context that this sort of behavior happened elsewhere as well. It worries me when I see bias like this in the areas I know about, because it makes me wonder what I’m missing in the areas I’m ignorant regarding.

That being said, this is quick passage through the early modern and modern efforts of many Irish to gain independence. It shows how the forces of nationalism found support among both Catholics and Protestants before being increasingly divided over the issue of union. It also showed how England fumbled many opportunities to improve this situation. The Land Law issues (first stealing almost all the land in Ireland from Catholics and then the efforts to restore the land to Catholics) was among the most interesting to me.

The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs by Steve Brusatte

Who doesn’t love dinosaurs? I’ve been reading about them off and on for my entire life and so it was with quite a bit of anticipation that I started this audiobook. It did not disappoint! In addition to walking me through the current state of the field of dinosaur studies, Brusatte has packed this monograph full of engaging stories about the men and women—historical and current—who have figured out what life was like for these creatures some 60 million years ago. If you’ve any interest at all in the subject, this book is for you.

1066: The Year That Changed Everything by Jennifer Paxton

This short entry in the Great Courses series provides a nice tight account of William’s famous conquest of England. The narrative is fairly conservative/traditional in covering the actual conquest. If you know a lot about the Conquest and the political situation in England, Normandy and the Viking territories of the north, then this account will likely be too short for you. I found the greatest value in Paxton’s analysis of the importance and impact of the Conquest for later generations and wish she had spent more time on it. Overall, this is well worth the three hours it takes to listen to it—especially if you have little knowledge of how the Normans came to rule England.

The Boiling River by Andre Ruzo

At its heart, this is a story about a scientist’s efforts to discover if a legend his father told him as a young boy about a boiling river in the Amazon could possibly be true. It’s also a tale of the mysteries still waiting to be discovered in our world, the beauty of the Amazon rain forest, and the great peril that that that forest faces. This is a very quick read and well worth your time.