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To Read, Vol. 1

 

In no particular order.

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Me Like History Books

Since the middle of last year I’ve been digitally archiving the books I read on the website Goodreads. Why? I read so many books while writing Man of War that I had a hard time keeping track of them all. A virtual bookshelf not only helps me remember what books I’ve read, but what’s inside them. I think 85% of our learning is visual (don’t quote me on that), so I guess the “memory spark” I get from seeing a cover works.

In all, I read sixty-two books while writing Man of War, in between jetting off to reenactments and holding down a full-time job. I nearly lost my mind, and yes, my wife is the most patient person on the planet. I often make reference to this within its pages.

Here are my three favorite books from the sixty-two I mentioned before…in no particular order.

A Little History of the World, by E.H. Gombrich. Gombrich is a master storyteller and he’s at his finest in this charming book. Wisely titled A Little History of the World, it often feels as though you’re reading something he’s recited dozens of times to a child.¬† He devotes most of his time to Western history, which is fine, and don’t expect anything too in-depth. In fact, he pretty much ignores the American Revolution, which I’d argue deserves more than the line or so he dedicates to it. Still, it’s a great introduction to history.

Founding Brothers, by Joseph J. Ellis. Far more in-depth than Gombrich’s tale, Founding Brothers takes a look at a number of key events that helped shape our early republic. Often a challenging read, it’s nonetheless a fascinating exploration into our Founding Fathers’ deft political jockeying. The portrait he paints of the men is, not surprisingly, a heck of a lot more complex than your typical high school history class.

April, 1865, by Jay Winik. I defy any American to read this book and not become completely obsessed with The Civil War. While the raw material of this tumultuous month (the fall of Richmond, Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, Lincoln’s assassination and the subsequent manhunt for Booth) is already pretty captivating stuff, it took a diligent researcher and storyteller like Winik to put it all together in an engrossing package.

 

 

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Noel Fielding

I often like my comedy a bit strange. So does Noel Fielding. One-half of the surreal British duo, The Mighty Boosh, Fielding has a new series coming to the UK station, E4, the digital arm of Channel 4. Will it ever make it to the States? Doubtful. But if it does, I anticipate a very late night slot and an audience hallucinating on some kind of illegal substance.

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I’m an Anglophile. Guilty.

I’ve loved most things British since I was a kid (with the exception of hooligans, binge drinking and saying that one goes “to hospital.” Don’t they know you go to the hospital?). At first it was new wave music: Echo and the Bunnymen, New Order, even Depeche Mode. Then in 92-93 I studied acting at this place, and fell for Shakespeare. After I returned I liked to use the word “whilst” in sentences.

Mostly though, I love British comedy. The Goons, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, Blackadder, The Mighty Boosh and especially Alan Partridge. (Strange thing though. Never got into Python. Hard to believe, I know.)

On a recent flight to Hong Kong I watched all six of Partridge’s latest Mid-Morning Matters videos on Cathay Pacific’s wonderfully plentiful in-flight entertainment system. What’s particularly amazing about Steve Coogan and his team of writers is that they can hold your attention with only three cameras and one setting. Hats off to them for making me chortle and annoy my fellow Cathay Pacific passengers.

The episodes used to be on YouTube, but were recently removed. What remains are a few outtakes from the series.

Looking for British comedy online? Click here. An Anglophile yourself? Try this.

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I Heart Real Books

I got a Kindle for Christmas. It’s…fine. I like that I can look up words on the spot (did you know that “bonny” means “pleasing to the eye?”), that books cost $9.76 and I can read sample chapters for free. However, one of the Kindle’s drawbacks is that it’s not made of paper. Am I the only person to notice this?

Just a hunch, here, but I think e-readers are better suited for reading fiction which I don’t do much of. After I got it, I showed it to a few friends. Half said “Don’t you love it?” and half said “I’m never going to speak to you again.”

Like real books? You’ll love this:

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How to Break One’s Eardrum

Step One: Grow a hideously itchy beard.

Step Two: Pay your two-dollar entry fee to the Brooksville Raid, Florida’s largest Civil War reenactment.

Step Three: Dress in over-sized itchy woolen fatigues, a pair of old Campers and borrow a Kepi from a kind Yank. Take your position next to a rather corpulent infantrywoman who, like you, is new to the reenacting hobby. (And who, from this time forward, shall be known as Roseanne Barr.)

Step Four: Blithely go about volleying blanks with your fellow soldiers while Roseanne Barr mistakenly loads three packets of gunpowder down the barrel of her replica 1862 Enfield musket.

Step Five: On the “F” in “Fire!” pull the trigger of your musket, then as the crack of Roseanne Barr’s makeshift “cannon” knocks you and your fellow reenactors ten feet sideways, bend over, grab your ear and scream an expletive.

Step Six: Play dead and later shoot a video in which you narrate your demise (below at 1:15).

Coming this weekend, the 32nd annual Brooksville Raid, Florida’s largest Civil War reenactment.

 

 

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One Year Ago Today…

…this happened: I tonsured my hair, dressed as a Spanish friar, cradled a small stuffed cat in my arms and attempted to walk between two LA missions. Why? It’s a long story (and the last chapter in my book, Man of War).

To answer your question, yes, I kind of lost my mind.

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I Heart Etymology

I love learning about how words developed. This is called etymology. Actually the proper definition of etymology is “the derivation of a word,” but let’s not mince words.

On Sunday I went to the Huntington Library and Gardens with my wife. We brought along the book “A Californian’s Guide to the Trees Among Us” which is a reference guide to trees that populate our home state of California. This made us feel like nerds.

We decided that we’d learn about five different types of trees, but I had a hard time getting past the Ginkgo tree. Or rather Ginkgo biloba. What was so interesting about it? Certainly not its sad, naked branches. Rather I found myself geeking out on its name. Gingko biloba simply put means¬†“Silver Apricot Two Lobes.” Doesn’t sound as elegant or mysterious when you break it down into its component parts, huh? Come to think of it, it sounds like a gangster’s nickname. Sidney Two Lobes.

Silver apricot (“ginkgo” is originally from the Chinese) refers to its fruit and two lobes is a reference to the shape of its leaves (from the Latin bis loba–two lobes). I like the leaves bit the most because it reminded me of the book I’m reading by Mark Forsyth, aka the Inky Fool. It’s called “The Etymlogicon” and it’s curiously under-priced for Kindle readers ($1.99). In it, Forsyth, a London-based pedant and wit, links together words and their origins into an informative, erudite and often hilarious exploration into that bastard tongue of ours. I’ve read a number of books with a similar theme over the past year including Bill Bryson’s informatively charming “Mother Tongue” and Henry’s Hitchings’ (often) dense, but nevertheless enjoyable “The Secret History of Words.” Forsyth manages to actually spin a kind of narrative out of all the definitions, history and clever interjections.

Right off the bat, Forsyth engages you with the story of how the word biscuit developed. Turns out it means “cooked twice” and is from the French bi-cuit. From there he links to the origins of the words “bicycle” and “bisexual.” The latter word leads him to “masochism.” (The two were coined by the same person.) This “circular stroll” as Forsyth puts it, continues on for the rest of the book. Now that I’m 80% of the way through it (the Kindle won’t tell me what page I’m on which is utterly ridiculous) I can say with confidence that it’s the best book I’ve read this year. Chances are it might remain so.

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Man of War Available For Pre-order Now!

I learned today that my book, Man of War, is now available for pre-order at Barnes & Noble, Indiebound, the fantastic Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle, larger than life Powell’s in Portland, OR and my local SoCal fav, Vroman’s, in Pasadena. (It’s “available available” on May 24th, 2012 and can also be pre-ordered on Amazon.) I also learned that it’s being categorized under “Military-Strategy” and “Personal Memoirs.” Step aside Reminiscences by Douglas MacArthur.

Speaking of Vroman’s, last Sunday I braved all the last-minute holiday shoppers and bought a number of gifts there including Yiyun Li‘s The Vagrants. I read it a couple years ago and have since bought it for a couple friends. I can’t say I’m a big fan of the word “unflinching” as it seems to always pop up in reviews of, well, “unflinching” subject matter, but “unflinching” is exactly the type of portrait Li paints of late ’70’s China. I can’t remember the last time I read a book that made me gasp and cry, two things I don’t normally seek out in my entertainment. But this book shocked and saddened me-often-and for that and many other reasons I suggest you give it a read yourself.

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Man of War

I’ve written a book titled Man of War: My Adventures in the World of Historical Reenactment. It’s released on May 24th, 2012, but can be pre-ordered on Amazon now. In it I reenact my way through 2,000 years of Western civilization, from Ancient Rome to Vietnam. In addition to the latter time periods, I don the uniforms and civvies of a Civil War soldier (Union and Confederate), a Polish Winged Hussar, a Revolutionary soldier, French and Indian War soldier, bateauman, Viking, Spanish friar and a Nazi. Yes, people reenact the Wehrmacht.

More to come in the following months.