Books for the desert
May 18, 2007 6:11 PM   Subscribe

Looking for a few good books.... I am going on deployment to the "desert" for 6-7 months and will have an abundance of time on my hands. What books would y'all recommend?

I am about to be deployed and I will have a lot of extra free time to spend inside (130F isn't pleasant ;). I generally enjoy non-fiction/history/political/science reading. The last few books I ordered were I Am a Strange Loop (Douglas Hofstadter), Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier (Ishmael Beah), Chief of Station, Congo: Fighting the Cold War in a Hot Zone (Larry Devlin), Freakanomics (Steven D. Levitt), Collapse (Jared Diamon), and the like. Though I must confess I love anything by Tokien

I am open to reading anything truly interesting/informative and hopefully I will pick up a few extra favorite authors (to add to Bill Bryson, Jared Diamond, P.J. O'Rouke) along the way.

One quick caveat, I have to be able to order from, Barnes and Nobel, or another company that can deliver to military PO Boxes.

posted by aggienfo to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (49 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
some long, escapist books with real literary cred and intelligence to see you through the boring days:

"sacred games" by vikram chandra. 1000+ pages of literary noir detective story set in mumbai. it's really wonderful.

"the amazing adventures of kavalier and klay" by michael chabon. traces the life story of two teenagers who grow up to be famous comic book artists. fantastic.

"jonathan strange & mr. norrell" by susanna clarke. victorian magicians fighting the napoleonic wars. super neat.

"the historian" by elizabeth kostova. teenager on the run in 1970's europe to find her father, who is in search of dracula.

"the satanic verses" by salman rushdie. i didn't find it nearly controversial enough to warrant the fatwa--of course it has an opinion about fundamentalism, but it's far from a polemic--but it is very well written and entertaining.
posted by thinkingwoman at 6:23 PM on May 18, 2007

Fiction, but with interesting bits of non-fiction/history/political/science added liberally to the stew:

Gravity's Rainbow
, by Thomas Pynchon
Cryptonomicon & The Baroque Trilogy, by Neal Stephenson
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 6:26 PM on May 18, 2007

I enjoyed the lengthy The Coming Plague though it might be a bit dated now. I also double the vote for "Kavalier and Clay".
posted by chairface at 6:40 PM on May 18, 2007

Manhunt: The 12 Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer, by James Swanson. Info like a history book, reads like a thriller.
posted by gnomeloaf at 6:53 PM on May 18, 2007

Give The March of Folly or really anything by Barbara Tuchman.
posted by drezdn at 6:54 PM on May 18, 2007

a try.
posted by drezdn at 6:56 PM on May 18, 2007

Fantasy with real depth - the Finovar Tapestry (3 vol I think) by Guy Gabriel Kay. If you don't want to go for a series, I found Tigana by GG Kay to be profoundly moving (also fantasy but very rich complex characters.
posted by metahawk at 6:59 PM on May 18, 2007

Time? "War and Peace" "Ulysses" "Gravity's Rainbow"

That's a pretty heavy lot. Long, and almost as interesting, yet a less tortured read, "The Corrections." These are all novels, yet they are the best of class, and long, but you have time.

If you like history, and if you like military history, I would recommend the Bruce Catton trilogy on the Civil War - "Army of the Potomac" "Glory Road" and best of all "A Stillness at Appomattox." Another great book on the Civil War is McPherson's "Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era." The Catton books as a group are large, but each one is pretty small on its own. The McPherson book is a tomb, yet arguably the very best book ever written about that conflict.

Well, there are a few ideas. Best of luck to you on your deployment. Break a leg.
posted by caddis at 7:07 PM on May 18, 2007

I'm sure I'll think of more, but right away I think All for the Union: The Civil War Diary & Letters of Elisha Hunt Rhodes might be a good choice for you.
posted by blaneyphoto at 7:11 PM on May 18, 2007

I strongly second Alvy Ampersand's suggestions of Cryptonomicon & the Baroque Trilogy. I'd go with the Baroque Trilogy first.
posted by J-Train at 7:19 PM on May 18, 2007

Ben Franklins' biography is something I would read again and recommend. I always find his life quite fascinating and can relate to it on many fronts. It might give you a pump while sweating your ass off in the hopes that it will give you some idea of why you are risking your ass for something that might otherwise seem pointless- in the here and now.

I try to get my arms around it every day.

A couple of hundred years can change the preception of what is occuring around you so maybe a reflection of history is a good thing. His story did this for me based on what happened in his life and where I life today.

Right or wrong, stay safe and thanks for laying it on the line for the rest of us.
posted by bkeene12 at 7:44 PM on May 18, 2007

Anything by Richard Feynman is fun nonfiction along the lines you describe - get several. Even if you don't know him already, you'll almost certainly love him.

Snow Crash and Cryptnomicon by Neal Stephenson, and maybe Zodiac, are his more present-day, and therefore more accessible, book. The Baroque Trilogy are three very long novels set in the scientific revolution in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; if that sounds good to you, go for it, but if it sounds like a drag you will probably get better mileage from other books.

Matt Ruff's book Sewer Gas and Electric is in a sort of similar vein to Stephenson's present-day stuff.

Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie is about India when it got its independence from England - a really great read, and doesn't have as much of the baggage as Satanic Verses.

Martin Gardner wrote science puzzle and paradox columns for Scientific American for years; he has a number of books that would be fun.

Studs Terkel's oral histories are always fun; there are a number of topics to choose from.

John McPhee is usually very good; he's famous for writing a lot about geology. The Control of Nature is a collection of a few long essays he wrote for the New Yorker about places where people ahve tried to control natural processes, and what happened as a result - if you were going to get just one book of his, I'd say get this one. His book Annals of the Former World is a collection of book-length pieces written over 20+ years, driving across the US and explaining the geologic history of all the different areas of the country - long and good.

Them: Adventures with Extremists by Jon Ronson is great, but might ruffle feathers depending if your reading material is inspected.

The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker is fun. Its accuracy is disputed by a number of linguists, but it's a very fun quick tour of linguistics since the 1950s.

Oliver Sacks is, of course, always fun.

Philip Kitcher has a couple of good books if you like to read about defending science from pseudoscience. Abusing Science is a good one.

Ricky Jay's books about magic are fun.
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:45 PM on May 18, 2007

Also, this might sound crazy, but Larry Gonick's Cartoon History of the Universe/World series are really great. Very much worth it.
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:47 PM on May 18, 2007

Hooah (if that applies) (I'm a USA medical corps officer btw)

Though fantasy (and most genre literature) is sneered at by a lot of folks, I would encourage you to pick up George R.R. Martin's current series. It is widely regarded as the best thing going in fantasy today (an opinion I wholeheartedly agree with) and a hell of a good read to boot. The first book is A Game of Thrones. There are currently four (out of seven) out in mass market paperbacks.

You won't be disappointed. Here is a big thread about it over at SA Forums..

Take care of yourself and your soldiers.
posted by i_am_a_Jedi at 7:47 PM on May 18, 2007

Also, for the desert, you could read T.E. Lawrence ("Lawrence of Arabia") for historical interest! I haven't read him, so don't have specific recommendations but he's supposed to be a good read.
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:49 PM on May 18, 2007

And if you like silly, goofy, candy fantasy, Terry Pratchett's Discworld series (especially after the first few; the ones with Sam Vimes are better than the early ones, and it doesn't matter what order you read them in) are great. They're short, read in two days kind of books, but that means they're easy to pass around the unit.
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:52 PM on May 18, 2007

So, when my dad was out on sumbarine duty (in the 70s...) he read a lot. And his theory about reading while at sea was that he wouldn't take the book unless it had at least a thousand pages. The thousand page mark served a two important purposes. First, if it was a thousand pages, he'd get enough time out of it to make it worthwhile. Second, if he rand out of cigarettes and needed rolling paper, he had a lot of extra.

Using his theory, some books I'd recommend are:

The Stand by Steven King. Definitely take the unabridged version. This is by far my very favorite SK book.

Also, The Dark Tower Series by Steven King are lengthy and high quality fantasy. This is a link to the first four books, but there are seven total.

Since you mentioned Tolkien, you might as well pick up the newest book, Children of Hurin. I have yet to read it, but if you liked his other works, you'll probably enjoy this one as well.

One of my dad's very favorite books while out on tour was Trinity by Leon Uris. I haven't read this one either, but he loved it.

I read the Historian, but I found it long and wordy. It'd appeal to your history buff senses because it uses fictional primary sources and changes perspectives all the time. If you'd like my hardcover copy, I could send it to you.

And finally, for humor and length factor, one can never do wrong by Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

Some other popular non-fiction you might enjoy:

A Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin.

No Ordinary Time by Doris Kearns Goodwin as well.

Einstein by Walter Isaacson, which is a beefy biography.

Devil in the White City by Erik Larson. This book might be a wee bit short, but it puts the history of 19th century Chicago against a serial killer. Very interesting. I've also got Thunderstruck to read, by the same author, as well, but I haven't started it.

I loved Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach, but I'm nervous that the content might not be the best for a dangerous existence in the military.

Finally, books I haven't read, but ones my war-buff dad has.

The Civil War books by Shelby Foote.

Rise and Fall of the Third Reich

I'm so checking his library tomorrow for you.
posted by santojulieta at 7:54 PM on May 18, 2007 [1 favorite]

I personally recommend "The Little Prince" by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
It is a great book on life in general, short but well worth it.. and they are in a desert. :)
Good luck by the way.
posted by ForeverDcember at 7:56 PM on May 18, 2007 [1 favorite]

Ooh, and I totally agree with the Discworld assessment of LobsterMitten.

Also read Good Omens by Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman. Hiiiiiiiiiilarious.
posted by santojulieta at 7:57 PM on May 18, 2007

Response by poster: sweet, thanks for all the suggestions... keep them coming. The first books I'm taking right now are "The Children of Hurin" and "Postwar:History of Europe". I'll have to finish these so I can get onto the rest of these
posted by aggienfo at 8:02 PM on May 18, 2007

My soldier has enjoyed

World War Z which is about as close as fiction can get to channeling non-fiction

And The Things They Carried. Which I think everyone should read.
posted by Mozzie at 8:08 PM on May 18, 2007

"Coming of Age in the Milky Way" by Timothy Ferris. Reading this review of it makes me want to go read it again.
posted by selfmedicating at 8:09 PM on May 18, 2007

- another thread with nonfiction recommendations
- and another one, with some more

Thinking about it some more...
Neil Gaiman's American Gods - novel, semi-fantasy, set in present day US.

For nonfiction:
David Halberstam is great and prolific - find a topic he wrote about that you're interested in, and get whatever he wrote on it. Baseball, war, you name it.
Hofstadter's Godel Escher Bach is a famously fun but hard-to-finish book about logic, paradox, language, music, philosophy.
Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff is supposed to be great though I've never read it - about early NASA
Taylor Branch has a series of amazing, long books on the history of the US Civil Rights movement - they're great.
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:12 PM on May 18, 2007

I have a lot of good long-long books, but they're all fiction. However, The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes is one of the better non-fiction books I know. I don't think that history, science, and politics could be more tightly wrapped up in one book than they are in Rhodes's book.

And I'll second Neil Stephenson's Cryptonomicon.
posted by kiltedtaco at 8:16 PM on May 18, 2007

i came back to recommend "devil in the white city" but someone already has. so, i second it!

also, for historical fiction, "i, claudius" is a classic.
posted by thinkingwoman at 8:18 PM on May 18, 2007

The best military books I have ever read:

We Were Soldiers Once and Young

Blackhawk Down (the movie was crap)

If you haven't read it yet being a Bill Bryson fan

A Short History of Nearly Everything

Historical fiction: An Instance of the Fingerpost

Good luck, and keep your head down.
posted by procrastination at 8:19 PM on May 18, 2007

Everything you list is very recent. If you don't mind the style differences here are some older books.

I think you would enjoy Storm of Steel by Ernst Junger. It's a stridently pro war book by a guy who saw a lot of combat in WWI. That might not suit you if you're going to Iraq or Afghanistan (do they do 6-7 month deployments there?). You can get some good information on him and the book at both wikipedia and the amazon reviews.

Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds by Charles MacKay is a good long read with some very entertaining stories. It isn't a scholarly book but there are real connections with history and economics. If you believe, as I do, that a lot of politics is about controlling the psychology of crowds, then it's about that too.

Out of the Night by Jan Valtin is a first person account of the Communist-Nazi death match from the 1920s through the late 30s in Germany. It's a great book and pretty long. There are many passages in the book where pretty much everyone involved in a scene is later killed either by Stalin or Hitler. He was very lucky to survive. Valtin was a pretty tough guy who hung around a bunch of others. I say that because I'm setting up this quote that I can't resist sharing,

"Toughened as I was, compared with the toughness of the Tiljuca tars, I was a mere infant. One of them ate his salt pork, seasoned with tobacco, raw. Another answered a letter from his mother, imploring him to come home after so many years, by writing that he would come home as soon as he had found someone rich enough to be killed for his money. They gloried in their toughness. Thoroughly soaked in vino tinto, none of them hesitated to rob an itinerant hawker or to rape an immigrant girl come aboard to beg food, but all of them showed an almost sentimental affection for the Tiljuca's mongrel dog and the forecastle canary.".

It's a pretty sweet book.

If you haven't read Investment Biker by Jim Rogers that is right up your alley as well. It would have been better a few years ago but it's still great. He was George Soros' former partner at the Quantum fund during the years they were having obscenely high returns. As he travels across the globe he writes about the nation's political history, economic policies and how they will play out in the future. Very perceptive guy with a strong free market view.

Best to you.
posted by BigSky at 8:38 PM on May 18, 2007

In addition to T. E. Lawrence, read about Gertrude Bell - aka the Desert Queen - in whose footsteps Lawrence followed. If you have a beef with the way much of the Middle East was divvied up back in the (colonial) day, take it up with her: she drew the modern-day borders of Iraq. She went everywhere and knew everyone, and lived a difficult, adventurous, and tragic life.
posted by rtha at 8:53 PM on May 18, 2007

Recent reading for me is overlapping with recent audio books... if you have an mp3 player, I would recommend selecting some of the great titles above in digital format. Seconding LobsterMitten's recommendation of anything by Feynman -- I recently bought an edited collection of letters that was interesting reading.

Fiction -- All the Names by Jose Saramago , * V.S. Naipaul
posted by acro at 8:59 PM on May 18, 2007

Ok - let me give you links, focusing on longer books, 300+ pages:

Nonfiction about history:
- All the President's Men is another great nonfiction book; not terribly long but very interesting if Watergate happened before your time.
- The Taylor Branch civil rights books are the first three links on this page.
- The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe.
- Anything by David Halberstam.
- T. E. Lawrence - Lawrence of Arabia
- Quasi-nonfictional civil war books: The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara (about Gettysburg), and The March by EL Doctorow (about Sherman's march)
- The Gulag Archipelago is supposed to be great but I haven't read it.
- same with The Power Broker, especially if you're interested in New York City.

Nonfiction about science/ideas:
- Here are two books by Richard Feynman. (on the shorter side, but too fun to pass up)
- One collection from Martin Gardner, but look at his page to see if anything else seems more pleasing.
- Godel Escher Bach by Hofstadter.
- Annals of the Former World by John McPhee - though McPhee writes on a lot of topics, so check his whole list.

- American Gods by Neil Gaiman
- Discworld novels by Terry Pratchett - I'd start with Guards Guards and Night Watch. Again, these are shorter page-turners.
- The Black Company series is a great action fantasy series, but might not be escapist if you've got plenty of action already.
- If you love Tolkien, have you read The Once and Future King by TH White? It's the King Arthur story, done in grand old style.
- Also, Ghormenghast by Mervyn Peake is supposed to be one of the indispensable fantasy epics.
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:19 PM on May 18, 2007

Reading your interests, these two books are coming strongly to my mind:

Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight / Alexandra Fuller
Recounts childhood of an English girl raised in Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) during its civil war. Lovely prose, stark emotions. I haven't read her Scribbling the Cat: Travels with an African Soldier, but it's supposed to be fantastic. Perhaps not light reading.

Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War / Nathaniel Philbrick
Somehow scholarly and chummy all at once. Incredibly engaging. Recounts early New England colonial history and the region's eventual slide into violence, so perhaps "fun" isn't the word for it. But very good.
posted by lillygog at 9:44 PM on May 18, 2007

Just because it's sitting right in front of me right now, I'm going to reccomend House of Leaves. It's a head-trip of a book, and it definitely counts as interesting, although perhaps not in the sense you were thinking. It's got several levels of narrative running concurently, and uses the physical structure of the text as a plot element. If you're interested in that sort of experimental writing, it's amazing.
posted by Arturus at 10:06 PM on May 18, 2007

I really enjoyed The First Crusade.
posted by oneirodynia at 10:11 PM on May 18, 2007

I think you might enjoy The Alienist and The Angel of Darkness by Caleb Carr. They're psychological thrillers but they're set in turn-of-the-century New York, when Teddy Roosevelt was chief of police, and are chock full of fascinating historical details. Think of Silence of the Lambs done as a really excellent period piece.
posted by infinitywaltz at 10:11 PM on May 18, 2007

Dune, by Frank Herbert. It's science fiction, but it's also really good and totally desert-y.
posted by anaelith at 10:17 PM on May 18, 2007

Isaac Asimov is a pretty awesome author, and his Foundation series is widely considered to be a very important development in the science fiction world. I have only found the time to read Foundation, Foundation and Empire, and Second Foundation so far, but I love them all.

Also, if you're looking for some more Sci-Fi and haven't read much Asimov he's a great author to look into. I highly recommend The Robots of Dawn, and of course I, Robot is a true Sci-Fi classic.
posted by SteveFlamingo at 10:19 PM on May 18, 2007

If you're into science fiction, or even if you're not, there are two series that come to mind:

The Hyperion series by Dan Simmons. Comprised of Hyperion, Fall of Hyperion, Endymion, Rise of Endymion. How I wish I could wipe my memory of these books so that I could read them again for the first time.

Another series by a man some say is the greatest writer alive, Gene Wolfe. The Book of the New Sun series, the Book of the Long Sun series, and a "bridge" novel in between, The Urth of the New Sun.

BTW, stay safe. I hope you return soon. We're all working on it.
posted by zardoz at 11:49 PM on May 18, 2007

Just seconding the George RR Martin rec--his A Song of Ice and Fire series is great fun (and I'm not normally into the whole gigantic fantasy series thing. Except for Tolkien, of course.). Make sure you order them all, though, 'cause as soon as you finish one, you'll need the next in line!

Dan Simmons--I quite liked Ilium (think the Illiad on Mars).

Michael Shaara's The Killer Angels is one I always think everyone's already read, but if you haven't, it's incredible. One of the best novels about the Civil War (Gettysburg, specifically), ever written.
posted by lovecrafty at 1:19 AM on May 19, 2007

The best value book time-wise is a crossword book -- hours and hours out of one book And crosswords can be done by a group if you have it with you at a shared boring moment.

I would take a pda or laptop with loads of Gutenberg books. The Sherlock Holmes books should all be there, for instance, ad Jules Verne. Project Gutenberg of Australia has some newer books, including George Orwell. Plenty of non-fiction too -- at their price you can pick up a whole lot and just abandon the ones that you don't find interesting. You can of course pay actual money and buy many more modern books.
posted by Idcoytco at 2:49 AM on May 19, 2007

Herodotus's Histories (examining the causes and progress of the Greco-Persian wars). Thucydides's History of the Peloponnesian War.

I will vouch for The Gulag Archipelago, although to read it you do need brief prior acquaintances with both modern Russian/Soviet history and Communist doctrine. You also need a goodly tolerance for grinding wretchedness. It's usually bound in three volumes, and when you've been slogging through the establishment of totalitarianism and the systematic degradation of camp life in the first two volumes, it may be helpful to just pop ahead for a few chapters and read about the escapes and rebellions in volume three.

The journals of Lewis and Clark might catch your interest, and they're pretty substantial.

Henry IV and Henry V may work out, fictionalized though they are.

I've rather enjoyed the Discworld books, aside from the first one, but think of them as candy bars: They're yummy, they go quick, they should be shared with friends, and they won't substitute for a meal but are a fine treat.
posted by eritain at 3:02 AM on May 19, 2007

Yeah, I think I would be careful to take some candy bar books for the inevitable times when you need comfort food. The Pratchetts are good for this in that there are enough allusions to all sorts of odd memes to make re-reading them fun as you discover things that went over your head the first time. I also enjoy the related Science of Discworld books, but I guess they are a specialised taste.
posted by Idcoytco at 3:21 AM on May 19, 2007

The DC-based crime fiction of George Pelicanos. They're all good, but I particularly recommend the first three.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 4:27 AM on May 19, 2007

I second Dune, of course. Since you're almost literally going to be choosing 'desert island books,' why not take the easy choice: a paperback copy of the complete works of Shakespeare! What better time to dig in to the great western literary wellspring?
posted by waxbanks at 7:30 AM on May 19, 2007

Shadow Divers by Robert Kurson is breathlessly exciting nonfiction about wreck divers who discover a German U-Boat off the Atlantic coast. These men are totally insane.

The Man Who Saved Britain: A Personal Journey into the Disturbing World of James Bond by Simon Winder is about British history in the mid-20th century, and how that situation gave birth to James Bond. I don't even really like history and I thought this was great.
posted by exceptinsects at 10:27 AM on May 19, 2007

Seconding santojulieta regarding long books - you'll want stuff that will take you more than a day or two to read. That said, anything by James Michener. Space was the first book of his that I read, and it was phenomenal. Another favorite was Chesapeake. All in all, Michener is able to take a location or topic and give you a deep understanding of it in a way that no one else can.

posted by spinturtle at 9:20 PM on May 19, 2007

oh yeah. specifically for the desert (although a slightly different area), The Source.
posted by spinturtle at 9:22 PM on May 19, 2007

Battlefield Earth? (si-fi )Hardcover: 1004 pages
posted by acro at 10:18 PM on May 19, 2007

Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace.
posted by sophist at 5:15 PM on May 21, 2007

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