If you're looking for the Great Books, I'm afraid you're going to be disappointed. Most of these books would probably make the average American Lit professor turn up his nose in scorn, but that's okay; I'm not trying to impress anyone. These are the books that for one reason or another left their mark on me, changed my life in some subtle (or maybe not so subtle) way, and made me who I am.

The GULAG Archipelago, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

But now that State Security has seized the book anyway, I have no alternative but to publish it immediately.
People who think they're living in a repressive police state here in America need to STFU and read this book, because they obviously have no idea what a real police state looks like or how it functions. Solzhenitsyn's classic work of history, assembled painstakingly under the noses of the KGB, recounts the history of the massive prison camp system, the secret police organizations that built, staffed, and often died in it, the perverted legal system that fed it, and the twisted political system that gave birth to it in the midst of the Revolution. Solzhenitsyn dispels the myth that the GULAG was born from Stalin's madness; rather, he makes clear that a system of this sort was what Lenin had in mind all along. I first read this book in junior high school, and if I had ever had any doubts about Communism, Solzhenitsyn killed those doubts forever. Coming on the heels of One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich, it also determined my military career: I chose Russian over Chinese or Korean when I enlisted in the Army, because someday I wanted to read Arkhipelag' GULag in the original Russian. It's a tribute to the quality of instruction at the Defense Language Institute that I could do so without having to refer to my Smirnitsky Russian-English dictionary more than once every dozen pages.

Once An Eagle, Anton Myrer

So in the Libyan fable it is told- That once an eagle, stricken with a dart- Said, when he saw the fashion of the shaft: 'With our own feathers, not by others' hands- Are we now smitten'.
I don't think there's another book out there quite like Myrer's classic novel about Sad Sam Damon and his nemesis, Courtney Massengale, who rise through the ranks of the Army's officer corps from quite disparate origins. Sam Damon leaves Nebraska to enlist in the Army during the Mexican Expedition, wins the Medal of Honor, a battlefield commission, and a wife in World War I, while Massengale comes from a down-at-heels upper-class New York family, goes to West Point, and spends World War One as a staff officer far behind the lines. Damon takes care of his troops and leads from the front, while Massengale exemplifies the overly political staff officer, ultimately maneuvering his way into a corps command under MacArthur in World War II despite never previously commanding troops at all. The book has become a cult classic for Army and Marine officers alike for its stark, often brutal portrayal of the horror of war, the men who fight in them, and the women those men love.
I came across Once An Eagle in high school and have since read several paperback copies to death. There are a lot of lessons to be drawn from the book, but it wouldn't be half as popular as it is if it weren't such a damn good story in its own right. There are dozens of memorable characters, all of them fully-rounded people with their own stories..."Paprika Ben" Krisler, "Porky" Bannerman, Reb Raebyrne, Joe Brand, Emily Massengale, Tommy Damon, and most of all the protagonists themselves. Sam Damon is no stainless hero, and Courtney Massengale isn't totally evil; Myrer shows them to us at their best and their worst. I have a weakness for well-written soap operas, and this globe-spanning masterpiece depicting the agonies and ecstasies of an Army officer's career that spans the World Wars is one of the best. I really ought to get a hardback or Kindle copy one of these days.

Rocket Ship Galileo, Robert Heinlein

We have a tradition of freedom, personal freedom, scientific freedom. That freedom isn't kept alive by caution and unwillingness to take risks.
This is actually the proxy for the half-dozen Heinlein juveniles that somehow had wound up in the collection of my elementary school in Maryland, which the librarian wished she could give me when I left the 6th grade for junior high since nobody else ever read them. This book, along with Time for the Stars, Between Planets, Farmer in the Sky and Space Cadet, really got me into the habit of reading science fiction, which I hadn't really developed yet in spite of reading Madeline L'Engle's A Wrinkle In Time back in second grade and Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles in third. Heinlein's first juvenile novel recounts the adventures of the "Galileo Rocketry, Marching & Chowder Society", four young high-school friends who get involved in a retired atomic scientist's plan to convert a surplus UN suborbital mail rocket into a fission-powered craft capable of reaching the Moon. This they then do, but they find on arrival that they're not the first humans to reach the moon, and that's when the real fun starts. The first of a dozen or so juvenile novels written by Heinlein for Scribners; the last, Starship Troopers is probably the most famous.

This Time Let's Not Eat The Bones, Bill James

The minor leagues as they exist today are an abomination in the sight of the Lord.
Like Rocket Ship Galileo, this is a stand-in for all the Baseball Abstracts and Baseball Books I dug into when I was falling back into love with baseball in the winter of 1989-1990. I don't think it's an understatement to say that Bill James changed the way a lot of fans looked at baseball; he coined the word "sabermetrics" and over the course of his twenty-plus years of writing has begun to have an effect on the way some front offices work. The thing is, most people assume that he's a "figger filbert", some kind of mad statistician who thinks everything can be explained by the numbers, when in fact he's gone to a great deal of trouble explaining why that attitude is pure bullshit. What Bill James is, really, is a scientist who has turned the scientific method on baseball. What are the facts, and what do they mean? This is the question he constantly asks in all his books, and when you get right down to it, it's the reason he's working for the Red Sox now, because John Henry don't want to hear no jockstrap bullshit, he wants to know what the facts are and what they mean, and between Bill James and his disciple Eddie Epstein, I don't think there's two better guys for coming up with the answers to those questions. Bill James is responsible, along with the fellow who wrote the article in Smithsonian magazine on the League of Nations rotisserie baseball league, for restoring my love for baseball after Bob Short killed it in 1972. I got interested in Rotisserie baseball, then involved in a Pursue the Pennant league, began scoring for STATS, Inc. during the horrible summer that was the 1990 Twins season, and wound up reading (and buying) a metric buttload of baseball books. Not too surprisingly, a lot of them (The Politics of Glory, to name but one of many) were written by Bill James, but I would recommend this one as a good starting point. It's out of print, but there are plenty of used copies out there; maybe one of these days some savvy publisher will get James to polish it up so they can offer a second edition.

Sharpe's Rifles, Bernard Cornwell

" What the hell is this bloody army coming to? He's a jumped-up sergeant, Johnny! He isn't even a real officer! And in the Rifles, too!"
This is one of several books I went looking for after seeing the TV or movie adaptations, although since I hadn't seen the credits to the show I thought I was looking for Rifleman Dodd by Forester. Fortunately, the folks at the now-defunct Baxter's Books were able to get me pointed in the right direction, and so I began a long hunt through the libraries and bookstores for more books about the scarred, ill-starred officer of the 95th Rifles. Unlike Forester's books, these are not stories suitable for children: there's enough gory death and violent sex (to say nothing of rape) to earn these books an R rating at the very least, if they were ever faithfully brought to the big screen. They do have the virtue of being accurate, though; Cornwell has unquestionably done his homework - which is more than one can say for the idiot who cast Daragh O'Malley as the hulking Sergeant Harper in the TV series. On the other hand, casting Sean Bean as Sharpe was pure genius, so I guess overall it's a wash. The Sharpe novels are historical novels at their best: they give you an unflinching look at life in the period when they take place, and England during the Napoleonic Wars was a damned interesting place. One sees both the extreme poverty of the London rookeries and the often-corrupt but quite stylish Court society, sometimes all in the same novel (Sharpe's Regiment) while other novels delve into the shadowy world of espionage and counter-espionage in which even strong men like Richard Sharpe are just pawns in the hands of the game masters. (Sharpe's Sword). Some people draw parallels between Cornwell's Sharpe and Fleming's Bond; this isn't fair to Sharpe, who isn't the sociopath that Bond rather obviously is. Sharpe loves his men and his wives in a way that Bond never could, and I would argue that leading men from the front in the Napoleonic Wars takes a sight more courage than facing off against SPECTRE or SMERSH, if only because Sharpe knew he couldn't rely on H.M. Government to take care of him if things went sideways. Excellent, excellent fiction and a worthy complement to our next book...

Beat to Quarters, C. S. Forester

During this first hour of the day the captain was not to be spoken to, nor his train of thought interrupted.
Unlike the previous two books, I discovered the shy, solitary captain of the Lydia one winter when I was a child, sick abed and plowing through a set of Reader's Digest Condensed Books for Children. I'm a sucker for a complex, sympathetic character, and Horatio Hornblower certainly is one; also, I was a sucker for a heroic fight against long odds, and Hornblower's cruise was definitely one of those after another, even without the romantic subplot involving Lady Barbara Wellesley. (Oh, my! #^_^#) Like Sharpe's Rifles, this book sent me off on a hunt for the other books in the (quite extensive) Hornblower saga, which I someday hope to sit down and read IN ORDER for the first time.
What can I really say about the Hornblower novels that hasn't already been said a million times? C.S. Forester's lonely captain has been the inspiration for dozens of others, including one starship captain from Riverside, Iowa and another whose career was less spectacular but arguably more colorful. Oh, yes, there's the Salamander as well. Still, Forester's novels deserve to be read for their own sake and not as some literary archetype. They're great sea tales and wonderful stories. Read them, and read them to your kids.

365 Days, Ronald Glasser

And so it goes, and the gooks know it. They will drop the point, trying not to kill him but to wound him, to get him screaming so they can get the medic too. He'll come. They know he will.
Already covered in this writeup.

Hammer's Slammers, David Drake

"Your family and I go back a long way, Lady. Did you know that I shot your father on Melpomone? Between the eyes, so he could see it coming."
I first read "Under the Hammer" in my high school library's copy of Galaxy Science Fiction and its sequel "But Loyal To His Own" (to which the above line, from "Standing Down", refers) a month or so later, and I was hooked forever. Drake's work has been criticized by some for being "carnographic conservative military SF" but in truth the exploits of the Auxiliary Regiment commanded by Alois Hammer are based on the real-life history of the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment in Vietnam, a unit Drake and I both served in (at thirty years remove, mind you) and don't show a lot of sympathy for politicians of any stripe. Jim Baen saw the stories for what they were, which was well-written SF, and the series grew to the point where the new collection in hardback from Night Shade Press will take up three volumes. Hammer's men (and women, for the most part) are complicated characters; there's a lot more going on with them than just filling a role in a tale of combat, and that's especially true of Joachim Steuben, the rather flaming and extremely deadly commander of Hammer's military police company, the White Mice. Suffice it to say I've barely begun to describe the character. Quite aside from their literary merits, the Hammer's Slammers stories got me interested in David Drake's writing, and while I haven't yet picked up his fantasy works I daresay I've read (and own) pretty much everything else he's written in the SF and horror genres. He's also one hella interesting person in the flesh.

Fields of Fire, James Webb

"We are all sucking wind out here, L-T."
This is a hard book to describe, because there's a hell of a lot going on. Much like his later sociological treatise Born Fighting, Fields of Fire covers a lot of history as background to its main story, the tale of Lieutenant Robert E. Lee Hodges, a young Marine lieutenant whose family has fought in nearly all of America's wars and who now heads off to Vietnam to lead a platoon in the I Corps zone. It's also the story of Snake, Senator, Ogre, Bagger, Dan, Cat Man, and the rest of Hodges' platoon, a story of revenge, betrayal, and deadly combat against the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese. It's not a pretty story, and it doesn't have a happy ending. In fact, it has multiple unhappy endings. There's a lot of story packed into the ~500 pages of Webb's debut novel, and I can't recommend it enough.

The Shadow over Innsmouth, H.P. Lovecraft

"Right naow Barnabas is abaout changed. Can't shet his eyes no more, an' is all aout o' shape. They say he still wears clothes, but he'll take to the water soon."
Thus Zadok Allen describes one of the leading citizens of the New England city of Innsmouth, the site of the action in The Shadow over Innsmouth, which was actually not a novel but a collection of Lovecraft stories published by Scholastic Book Services back in the late 1960s. Coming from a family that hailed from the northeast end of Massachusetts, I had no trouble imagining the decrepit city and the horrors that lurked behind the shuttered windows. This book set the hook in me, and over the subsequent years I snatched up every bit of Lovecraft I could find, even the tales adulterated by August Derleth into novels; even today, the Cthulhu Mythos and its several authors continue to fascinate me.

The River and the Gauntlet, S.L.A. Marshall

S.L.A. Marshall's reputation was pretty huge when he was alive, but diminished quickly as it became apparent to other historians that he hadn't let little things like the facts get in the way of a good story. Which makes me wonder how much of The River and the Gauntlet, a gripping account of Eighth Army's retreat from the Yalu River in the winter of 1950-51 is supported by the facts...anyhow, at the time that I read this book it was pretty gripping. I hadn't delved very much into American military history at that point and had yet to become familiar with such disasters as the siege of Bataan, the Crater incident during the Civil War, and the opening engagements of what would become the battle of the Bulge. Marshall's account of the Chinese intervention in Korea was a real eye-opener, and whetted my appetite for more of the same. Unfortunately, Battles in the Monsoon, his best-known work on Vietnam, wasn't nearly as good, and I never bothered to read his other histories after that. Still, I have to give Marshall credit for getting me more interested in military history, and the Korean War (to say nothing of other things Korean) in particular.

Retief's War, Keith Laumer

"I is a great believer in peaceful settlements. Ain't nobody as peaceful as a dead trouble-maker."
As a former Air Force officer turned diplomat, Keith Laumer was well-equipped to tell the rollicking tales of Jame Retief of the Corps Diplomatique Terrestrienne, an unorthodox fellow who often found himself fighting with his own superiors as much (or more) than he did the enemies of Terra, be they uncooperative natives or the five-eyed Groaci. Probably the best of all Retief's adventures is the novel Retief's War, serialized in Worlds of If back in 1965 - which is where I first saw it, or at least its second half. (That same issue had the first part of Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, with a memorable Gray Morrow cover.) Anyhow, Retief's War takes place on the planet Quopp, where the locals are made mostly of metallic chitin and get ripped on sugar products. In one memorable scene, two Quoppina of the Voion tribe are completely undone by a jar of Terran honey our hero has hidden for just such a situation. The Terran mission is about to fumble its way into disaster, until Retief escapes in disguise to rouse the anarchic bush tribes against the would-be imperialist Voion...who happen to be getting some under-the-table support from a certain bunch of five-eyed, sticky-fingered aliens who have (nefarious!) plans of their own for Quopp. It's a great adventure, full of swashes getting buckled, diplomatic derring-do, good old-fashioned brawling, misplaced educational supplies, plus a shipload or gorgeous women who aren't averse to picking up a sword and kicking some butt themselves when the occasion calls for it.
Of course, this novel started a decades-long fascination with Laumer's works.

From Here To Eternity, James Jones

"Got paid out on Monday, ain't a dog soljer no more..."
There's a lot to this book, and if you only know it through the (rather good) 1953 movie then you don't really know it at all. It's been called the best novel about the pre-World War II Army out there, and insofar as it gives an unsparing portrait of the Hawaiian Division before the war that may be true, but that really dates it far too much. Where the book really shines is in its equally unsparing look at the kind of men who enlist in a peacetime army and the kind of men who run that army, and that's not always a very pretty picture. My father got the copy I now have as part of a set with The Caine Mutiny and The Naked and the Dead, neither of which are anywhere near as good as this. Well, Wouk's book, maybe; certainly on average Wouk was a much better writer than Jones, as a quick comparison of The Thin Red Line and The Winds Of War will tell you. I probably read this for the first time when I was far too young to understand it properly or fit it into the right context, but there you are. Holds up very well to multiple re-readings.

The Revolt of Gunner Asch ('08/15 Im Kaserne), Hans Helmut Kirst

"We must congratulate Gunner Asch on his promotion to Corporal, Lieutenant."
I don't buy a lot of foreign books in the original language. I made an exception for Hans Hellmut Kirst's '08/15 im Kaserne (The Revolt of Gunner Asch) and its sequels, which I read in their Pyramid translations back in sixth grade. These were pretty remarkable books, depicting as they did the WW2 German Army in a very unsentimental light as an organization capable of driving its own junior NCOs to rebellion in the name of justice. Kirst had a gift for producing memorable, sympathetic characters, and even though I haven't cracked these in years I can still see Asch, Vierbein, Lieutenant Wedelmann, and Colonel Luschke as if I'd just put the books down yesterday. Kirst also wrote a whole mess of other books about the Wehrmacht, of which Night of the Generals is perhaps best known thanks to the movie, but these are his first, arguably the best.

Von Ryan's Express, David Westheimer

" ...if only one man gets out, it's a victory."
I have to admit, I like the movie version of this book a lot better, even though the book does a better job of explaining why Ryan is such a martinet and also has a sequel, which the movie can't. Still, the book is excellent, quite the period piece and an interesting counterpoint to Hogan's Heroes. Sorry, no deep meanings here, just a book that spawned an excellent movie...and made me aware of Westheimer's Lighter Than A Feather, one of the two novels spawned by the stillborn Operation Downfall.

Ranma 1/2, Rumiko Takahashi

"I'm Ranma Saotome. Sorry about the mess."
I started reading this while I was getting into anime and manga and the associated fandom, and despite the failure to wrap the series up with a happy ending I still think this is some of Takahashi's best work. Martial arts death machines tied up in love triangles, rhombuses and polygons, complicated by the title character's involuntary gender switching and his utter retard of a father...it's the soap opera to end all soap operas, and has spawned a million fanfics. Much longer and better description of the plot, characters, and associated craziness in this node.

American Caesar, William Manchester

Love him or hate him, General of the Army Douglas MacArthur was one of America's great generals, perhaps its greatest, and Manchester does this incredibly complicated man his due justice in a wonderful biography. American Caesar delves into MacArthur's ancestry and family ties, studies his suicidal bravery, and carefully unravels the complicated, incendiary issue of his relief by President Truman during the Korean War. There is no better book on the subject, period.

The Coming Fury, Bruce Catton

The first volume of Catton's Centennial History of the Civil War, and it's hard to believe that it's fallen out of print. Catton was a magnificent writer who made the Civil War his life's work, and it shows in this account of how well-meaning politicians stumbled their way into the bloodiest war ever fought by these United States. There are many books about the Civil War, but this one is mine, and it should be yours, too.

Hell in a Very Small Place, Bernard Fall

The definitive account of Dien Bien Phu, the disastrous battle that cost France her empire in Indochina, and eventually (as Jean Larteguy's The Centurions showed) Algeria as well. Goes well with Street Without Joy, Fall's account of the battles that led up to the debacle at Dien Bien Phu. Both are really necessary if you want to understand the mistakes that we made in Vietnam a little more than a decade after the final bunkers fell in that miserable Laotian valley.

To Lose A Battle, Alistair Horne

The final volume in Horne's superb trilogy covering the Franco-Prussian Wars from 1870 to 1940. I don't think it's possible to overstate what a shock the French campaign was to the world; certainly nobody expected the German Wehrmacht to rip through the largest army in Europe like a chainsaw through rotten cheese, drive England from the Continent, and bring France to its knees in a mere sixty days - but it happened, and Horne goes back to the Victory Parade in 1919 to expose all the reasons why.

The 13th Valley, John Del Vecchio

More than just another novel about Vietnam; it's a close study of the men who fought that war in the airmobile battalions that avoids the facile cliches that so much Vietnam War fiction suffers from. I think this may be a better book than James Webb's Fields of Fire, which as you can see, I'm also quite fond of.


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