Honeymoon reading: some good books

Sarah and I just returned from our honeymoon, and plowed through a number of books that added to the weight limit of our luggage. Since I watch TV too much when I don’t have a good book to read, I include them here to encourage you to pick them up.

The Stone War, by Madeline E. Robins is one of my favorite genre: the Post-Apocalyptic story. I love almost everything from this genre, from awful films like Adam Ant and Bruce Dern’s World Gone Wild to Kevin Costner’s doomed Postman. The more we get to see the world trashed, and people rebuilding society in the rubble, the happier I am.

This book is an excellent addition to this genre. Robins has a deep appeciation for New York City architecture, and though it helps to know NYC pretty well to appreciate the book, if you’re fuzzy on what it looks like, you still can appreciate it. The story is basically about NYC falling apart in very weird ways (ie magical) and how the survivors left in NYC deal with a city awash in magic and people of bad intent.

The Power of Gold, by Peter L. Bernstein, is “the history of an obsession”, as the author says, and he’s absolutely dead on. Similar to another favorite book of mine, The History of Money, Bernstein traces the history of gold from the legends of King Midas to its current day, starting when gold was jewelry, to the first minting of coins made of gold, leading up to the politics around gold as the basis for a country’s money, supply, and ending with the dumping of the gold hoards of Switzerland, Britain, and others in the last few years.

I can’t say enough things about this book. While I was reading this gold, I was also honeymooning in Cuba. While there, I went to the Cuban Numismatic museum, which features precious metal coins from the Greeks and Romans all the way through to the Cuban currency of today. Indeed, while perusing through the ancient coins, I noticed a particular point at which coins stopped carrying the pictures of ancient gods and goddesses, and starting bearing the images of the emperors. This was a detail important in the minting of gold coins in the history of gold, and is explain in enjoyable detail in Bernstein’s book.

Most of the later half of the book is taken up with efforts of countries to wield their gold hoards against each other for political and economic gain. If you don’t find politics interesting, it may be too drawn out for you, but I found it fascinating.

Between Silk and Cyanide, by Leo Marks, is the autobiographical story of a cryptographer assigned to the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) division during World War II. During the war, the SOE was dropping spies into occupied Europe. The agents were recruiting resistance fighters, and sabotaging Nazi war targets. To communicate with their supervisors in London, the agents used very weak codes based on popular passages and poems. The messages were transmitted using wireless transmitters, which posed a great risk to their users. The Nazis used direction-finding units, which they used to triangulate the location of the transmitters. Over time, they would eventually be tracked and caught.

The story of Marks’ fights with the British bureaucracy to improve communications security isn’t just a story about interesting cryptography, but cryptography which saved lives. Today we talk about the usefulness of cryptography in terms of protecting one’s right to privacy, but Marks’ story provides a context in which cryptography was life-saving. I highly recommend you pick it up.