It has been an eventful summer at Bourbon & Battles Headquarters (by which I mean my house). I finished my first year of grad school, completed an 11-week summer internship in San Francisco, suffered through a nasty case of Hand, Foot, and Mouth Disease, and found out my wife was pregnant with our fourth (and final) child, this time a son. He will be woefully outnumbered—though I suspect well taken care of—by three older sisters.
It dawned on me pretty early in the summer that my super-long commute to the city afforded me a new and rare opportunity for long periods of uninterrupted reading time. That in mind, I set out to take full advantage before the crushing weight of required textbook reading returned in the fall. I generally took care to choose highly rated or recommended books to get the most bang for my time, so my summer was jam-packed with an extraordinary reading selection.
Here’s what I read this summer, along with some thoughts. I recommend most (but not all) of these books. If you have any questions or want to hear more from me about a particular title, hit me up on social media or send me an email.
Without further ado, here’s the goods:
Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging by Sebastian Junger
“What people miss [about war] presumably isn’t danger or loss but the unity that these things often engender.”
This was the first book I picked up this summer. I chose it partially because of the positive chatter it was getting on social media and from articles, but mainly because I thoroughly enjoyed the author’s 2010 book, War. Although I half expected the book to revolve entirely around military themes (what with the multicam font), Junger shoots for a grander exploration of the “tribe” theme that includes, but goes far beyond, the military and its take on the concept.
Tribe seeks to explore how tribalism and reintegration are not the sole domain of combat troops. We should rethink how we so readily elevate, praise, and then slap a PTSD label on veterans.
A very quick read that steers conversations in the right direction. Definitely pick it up.
End of Watch (Bill Hodges Trilogy #3) by Stephen King
“It’s about how some people carelessly squander what others would sell their souls to have: a healthy, pain-free body. And why? Because they’re too blind, too emotionally scarred, or too self-involved to see past the earth’s dark curve to the next sunrise. Which always comes, if one continues to draw breath.”
Stephen King was my first favorite author. I fell in love with his writing in a strange way, however, after I picked up a battered paperback copy of The Gunslinger, the first book of The Dark Tower series, from a flea market as a kid. I was hooked to a style that wasn’t limited to horror, but could cross genres into fantasy, science fiction, and historical fiction among others. Of course, peppering in horror elements throughout certainly helps.
Even though he’s now in his late 60s, the king of the macabre continues to crank out books like a man possessed. Most recently, he dabbled in the crime genre with the Bill Hodges Trilogy, and my summer began finishing off the audiobook version of End of Watch, the last of three fun books that follow an aging, retired detective and his odd companions as they try to stop a serial killer who discovers he has telepathic and telekinetic abilities. (Even in the crime genre, King can’t help but inject paranormal elements.)
It’s not his best work, but the trilogy is a fun romp with quirky, loveable characters. If you want to read something newer by the author and haven’t yet, I also recommend checking out 11/22/63, which, in my opinion, is one of King’s all-time best.
Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates: The Forgotten War that Changed American History by Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger
After the Tripolitan bashaw sent men to cut down the flagpole in front of the American consulate:
“…the resilient flagpole refused to fall. The men who arrived to dishonor the flag were proving singularly inept…. The American diplomats looked on, darkly amused by the whole episode.”
This book is a strange case. On the one hand, it’s a very interesting walk through an infrequently discussed conflict and a feel-good story of America’s general awesomeness. On the other hand, many readers criticize the book as skewed right, fuel for islamophobia, and revisionist in its portrayal of Jefferson and American foreign policy. (The accusations aren’t eased when you learn that Kilmeade is a Fox & Friends host known for his controversial, sometimes seemingly racist, remarks.)
As long as you can read the book with a grain of salt firmly grasped in one hand and a sufficiently skeptical mindset in the other, you can appreciate the storytelling that takes readers on a tour of America’s infant military force and its early foreign policy struggles. Just understand that even New York Times bestselling authors have biases.
The Valley by John Renehan
“‘I don’t think it’s funny. I’m not a fan of closet psycho freaks going for a little free play in my own geostrategically significant piece of backyard. I needed that unfucked.'”
I was excited to read the Military Writers Guild’s inaugural Book Club selection this summer, and The Valley was a great first pick as this work of fiction provides a wealth of learning points and discussion. Check out the excellent MWG Book Club discussion here.
The Valley is a military mystery of sorts, set in one of the infamous valleys of eastern Afghanistan (think Restrepo). The book suffers from a number of problems, including unbelievable plot developments (pro-tip: never bring a brick of heroin to a key leader engagement). If you are or were a member of the military, some plot points may bother you (the most glaring of which are spoilers, so I’ll avoid them here). The important thing to remember is that Renehan is writing for the larger, mostly civilian, audience.
In spite of its flaws, The Valley will keep you turning pages just to see how crazy and deep into the rabbit hole Lieutenant Black’s investigation gets. Written by a former Army officer who served in Iraq, The Valley gets more right than wrong. Check it out.
A Passion for Leadership: Lessons on Change and Reform from Fifty Years of Public Service by Robert Gates
“At all three institutions that I led, I told folks that between where we stood and achieving our goals was a swamp. Sometimes, you slog your way across the swamp, dealing with alligators and snakes and such. And sometimes, it’s best just to walk around the swamp; it might take longer, but you eventually reach your destination without the teeth marks on your ass.”
I picked up A Passion for Leadership after reading Gates’ last book, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War. Duty was a chronicle of the former Secretary of Defense’s time in office under both Bush and Obama. It chronologically dove into intimate encounters and major decisions. Gates held few punches in laying out how he felt about people, orders, and tasks. Gates tactfully but truthfully tells it how it is and gives an ultimate insider view of the Pentagon during wartime.
A Passion for Leadership was nothing like Duty.
In A Passion for Leadership, the former Defense Secretary, university president, and Director of Central Intelligence uses his experience in those roles to lay out a rambling list of maxims and principles for leaders who wish to be a force of change within bureaucracies. Although the lessons are solid and on target, the delivery is stiff and formulaic. “Leaders must do this. Here are short anecdotes on how I did this in the Pentagon, at Texas A&M, and at the CIA. Next lesson.” (My quote, by the way, not Gates.)
When he uses anecdotes, they are clipped, feel forced, and are often repetitive. I do not recommend this book for the casual reader. But if you’re a leader entering an organization mired in bureaucratic stickiness, A Passion for Leadership may be what you’re looking for.
One Summer: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson
“Even with the benefit of steroids most modern players still couldn’t hit as many home runs as Babe Ruth hit on hotdogs.”
While I slogged through Robert Gates’ book, I found One Summer by Bill Bryson, an author whose work I had yet to read. I wish I would’ve found him sooner.
I’ve written briefly about One Summer before, and it even inspired me to take a quick dive into military history to see what the U.S. Army was up to in 1927 in this blog post. In short, Bryson takes an extremely narrow scope—the United States in the summer months of 1927—and paints a vivid, wonderfully captivating tale of the culture, iconic personalities, and events that made that summer so memorable. You get the birth of American aviation and Charles Lindbergh’s famous transatlantic flight. You get the height of gangster Al Capone’s career. You get the popular rise of boxing and the best season of Babe Ruth’s career. You get the infamous Great Mississippi Flood and how future president Herbert Hoover handled (or, in historical retrospect, perhaps mishandled) it. You get the emergence of technologies like radio, television, and talking movies, and you get a whole lot more.
One Summer felt a little on the long side, which seems like a byproduct of the author’s drive to contextualize every little thing. Sure the book is focused on Summer 1927, but when Bryson introduces the Sultan of Swat, you also get his backstory, including the Babe’s childhood at St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys. I still highly recommend picking up this tome for its rich storytelling that brings the reader back to the climax of pre-Great Depression America.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
“I do not miss childhood, but I miss the way I took pleasure in small things, even as greater things crumbled. I could not control the world I was in, could not walk away from things or people or moments that hurt, but I took joy in the things that made me happy.”
While perhaps not as ambitious as American Gods, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a short but deeply engaging story that combines childhood nostalgia, childhood fear, some elements of mythology, and a sense of fleeting urgency that can only be found in one’s youth. The book is part whimsical, and another part exciting.
This book was another Audible listen for me that I checked into while in the car and occasionally on public transit while I physically read some of the ones above. If you’re a fan of Gaiman’s work or simply appreciate the writing skills of an author who has the gift to transport you to another place, check out this book.
If I Die in a Combat Zone: Box Me Up and Ship Me Home by Tim O’Brien
“Can the foot soldier teach anything important about war, merely for having been there? I think not. He can tell war stories.”
The second selection for the Military Writers Guild Book Club was Tim O’Brien’s If I Die in a Combat Zone, a personal tale of one draftee’s Vietnam experience from initial entry training, through deployment to Nam, and back again.
For a second time, the #MWGBookClub pick features a protagonist who is an intellectual outsider—someone who doesn’t quite drink the gung-ho military Kool-Aid and who struggles with deep, philosophical questions about war and his place in it. But this time, the protagonist is the author himself.
O’Brien admits elsewhere that his accounts blend fiction and non-fiction. While we’re treated to a more-or-less straight forward telling of the author’s personal Vietnam experience, O’Brien embellishes or alters truth throughout to flesh out a more compelling story. I struggled with that concept at first, but after reading O’Brien’s explanation to this approach in an interview, I now have a lot more respect for his writing methods.
The MWG podcast discussing this book just wrapped last week, so keep an eye out for that to drop in the near future.
Red Platoon by Clinton Romesha
“It doesn’t get better.”
Red Platoon was, hands down, the best book I read all summer. The book is a firsthand account of the Battle of Kamdesh (also known as the battle at COP Keating) written by Medal of Honor recipient Clinton Romesha. Red Platoon has even more credibility by the sheer amount of additional research Romesha put into interviewing people with different perspectives of the battle and reference to the official Army investigation.
Romesha relates the story of his unit in the Nuristan province of Afghanistan when the Taliban launched a surprise attack of unprecedented scale and planning. The soldiers of Bravo Troop, 3-61 Cav, 4th BCT, 4th Infantry Division were fish in a barrel, but they tenaciously fought back and repelled the enemy, although not without loss. As the author humbly writes, the soldiers at Keating were “exceptionally ordinary men who were put to an extraordinary test.”
As someone who deployed to Afghanistan (albeit not to a terribly dangerous part like Red Platoon), and as an Army officer who studied the COP Keating battle at the Captains Career Course, this book was incredibly impactful, and it was made all the better by Romesha’s extraordinarily talented writing and character development. Red Platoon will go down as one of the greatest books from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Buy and read this book now, before the movie comes out.
Dark Matter by Blake Crouch
“I can’t help thinking that we‘re more than the sum total of our choices, that all the paths we might have taken factor somehow into the math of our identity.”
A year ago, I read through the Wayward Pines trilogy by Blake Crouch. A creepy mystery story with an excellent science fiction twist, the books were good enough to be produced into a Fox TV show starring Matt Dillon that just wrapped its second season. I had fun reading those stories, so when Dark Matter was published this summer, perfectly lining up with my need for another audiobook to listen to, I downloaded it immediately.
Dark Matter is a thrilling, fast-paced science fiction book that explores the multiverse theory. More importantly, it explores what happens when you are able to see the unobservable counterfactual. What would have happened if you pursued an intensive career rather than settling down and raising a family, or vice versa?
Dark Matter is an action-packed story that sees just how far a man will go to get his family back. This book is almost certainly bound for the big screen.
Terminal Lance: The White Donkey by Maximilian Uriarte
“There’s uh… There’s a donkey in the road.”
I was sadly late to the excitement of The White Donkey. I missed the kickstarter, and I missed the release of the book when it was first published. When I spotted Uriarte’s book in my local Barnes & Noble, I immediately grabbed it.
Best known for his Terminal Lance comic strips, Maximilian Uriarte is a USMC veteran who is putting his experiences to art in the best way. The White Donkey follows Terminal Lance‘s main character, Abe, and his buddy Garcia—both mainstays of the strip—as they train up with their unit in Hawaii and then deploy to Iraq. This beautifully drawn graphic novel is fun and funny, but cuts straight to the heart of loss and depression. It explores how we question why we serve, the absurdities of combat, and the cultural challenges of military life, particularly for the junior enlisted grunt.
Uriarte writes in his Afterword that The White Donkey is his “thesis project,” and that the comic strip, including its characters, were created for the purpose of the graphic novel, not the other way around. It shows.
The White Donkey is a tremendous work, and everyone needs to read it, military and civilian.
Next in the Chute
As summer is winding down and the fall semester approaches, I’m bracing for an end to so much free reading time. I’m not stopping altogether, though. This week, I cracked open Rosa Brooks‘ How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything, which promises to be a fascinating insider survey of some very current national security discussions.
Also already on my shelf for future reading is another Bill Bryson book (since I enjoyed the first one so much), A Short History of Nearly Everything.
Feel free to share your thoughts, your summer readings, and other recommendations you might have!
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