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Books! (Variations of Death Edition)

Plot it Yourself (Rex Stout, 2016/#53): The premise that stylistic analysis — particularly, the way somebody breaks paragraphs — would be considered rock-solid evidence in a criminal trial must be among the flimsiest devices I've ever seen in a Nero Wolfe novel, and I absolutely love it.

Three Doors to Death (Rex Stout, 2016/#54): Three novellas. The last one shows Nero as I've almost never seen him.

Connoisseur's SF (Ed. Tom Boardman, 2016/#55): A collection of mid-sixties SF short stories from classic writers a la Frederik Pohl and Alfred Bester. Quite enjoyable.

The Black Gondolier and Other Stories (Fritz Leiber, 2016/#56): A bit of Poe, a bit of Lovecraft, a bit of mid-century SF, all of it highly imaginative and very good. I wonder why he hasn't been given the Philip K. Dick treatment by Hollywood (or maybe he has and I haven't noticed).

Antolog&ia; de Ciencia Ficción (Ed. Damon Knight, 2016/#57): I'm not sure, but I might have last read most of the stories here twenty years ago or so, but I still remembered plots, scenes, and the atmosphere; even those that I encountered later, I did so with a deep familiarity. This book is part of a long out-of-print collection of Spanish translations of classic SF books that was perhaps no less influential in my life than anything else.

Campaign in France 1792-Siege of Mainz (J. W. Goethe, 2016/#58): Goethe was a pompous, self-aggrandizing, elitist, ass-kissing, self-centered neurotic, whose every "scientific" theory was utterly wrong, and whose literary and philosophical opinions I find at best questionable. For God's sake, he described with admiration the sumptuous nobles gave while conducting a siege, and how gardeners began working on a formal part close to His Majesty's camp; no wonder the French eventually trashed armies so led. And this was how he fashioned himself through his writings, the edited version of the man. That said, he had a certain form of curiosity he couldn't turn off no matter what, an intellectual energy that was not so much focused action as a form of being, and a joy in learning everything about everything that reminds me in some ways of the journals of Da Vinci. Goethe's Italian Journey is a pleasure to read because of that contagious energy and constant observation, and there's something of that, amid a mountain range of issues, in these journals as well.


Books! (Death and Circuses Edition)

Site Realiability Engineering: How Google Runs Production Systems (Ed. Betsy Beyer, Chris Jones, Jennifer Petoff, and Niall Murphy, 2016/#47): A very interesting book, if this is the kind of thing that interests you. Not just in terms of technical details; in some ways Google (and Amazon) are facing issues many other industries are going to have to, so seeing how they do it, what works and what doesn't, is instructive. The book is an uneven collection of individually written chapters, though, and if they first ones hadn't been so interesting, I would have probably, and perhaps more appropriately, just read bits of it.

Gothic Immortals (Marie Mulvey-Roberts, 2016/#48): An analysis of Gothic novels involving, at least partially, the pursuit of physical immortality through Rosicrucian(-like) methods. I found it interesting more because of the topic than of the analysis (it also has to be said that most of the source novels, except Frankenstein, aren't particularly good reads, at least to my tastes). As a side effect, it provides further reminders of the extraordinary nexus of talent that was the Byron-Wollstonecraft-Shelley-Godwin-etc-etc menagerie. There's only one degree of separation between Ada Lovelace and Mary Shelley, and if you don't find the intellectual and artistic possibilities in a collaboration between them fascinating, I don't know what to tell you. Debauched superstardom, feminism, unhallowed biotechnology, programming, vampires... There was a little nexus of future in there (maybe not unrelated to how much tragedy there was in their lives). As an aside, there're plenty of obvious and petty reasons why Byron's memoirs were burned, but I'll be very disappointed with the zeitgeist if there isn't a "Lord Byron et al were a sort of Planetary and much of what they wrote was based on their experiences" graphic novel sooner or later.

Popular Culture in Ancient Rome (Jerry Toner, 2016/#49): A very useful complement to most of the books I've read about Roman history, which focus on elite or military matters. It describes a harsh, hierarchical, extremely competitive, and very believable society. The author makes an explicit attempt to try to avoid either over-projecting modern patterns or rejecting human commonalities, and I think he by and large succeeds.

The Father Hunt (Rex Stout, 2016/#50): A regular Nero Wolfe story.

Homicide Trinity (Rex Stout, 2016/#51): Three shorter Nero Wolfe novellas. Satisfactory.

The Borgias and their Enemies (Christopher Hibbert, 2016/#52): I finished this book not quite sure of why the Borgias ended up with the reputation they have. Sure, they were cruel, lascivious, violent, greedy, corrupt, et cetera, but it doesn't look as if they were qualitatively worse than most of their contemporaries. Maybe it was the coincidence within two generations of a very able Pope (within the ethical non-constraints mentioned above), an extremely charismatic soldier, and an exceedingly able noblewoman (both of the same mother, the also quite extraordinary Vannozza dei Cattanei), all of them working in concert. Alexander VI would've been scandalous on his own, mind you, but the combination was impressive, and the way he doted over his children possibly led him to do things otherwise he wouldn't have (e.g., I can imagine an issueless Alexander dedicating himself to strengthening and reorganizing the Curia and the Papal States, with perhaps as much sexual incontinence, but also more of an institutional focus). And of course there's all the gossip about incest, which I don't really believe. The three of them were as sexual as pretty much everybody in Italy seems to have been at the time, and this was a time when people sometimes stood by the bed of noble newlyweds to audit the process, so to speak, but nothing in their actual biographies suggests anything darker. I believe most of the charges of murder, though. Heck, even Alexander VI believed most of the charges of murder against Cesare, and he loved him.


Books! (Death and History Edition)

Maigret's Little Joke (Georges Simenon, 2016/#41): A reread. Maigret relaxes and has fun, and so did this reader.

The Hanged Man of Saint-Pholien (Georges Simenon, 2016/#42): A reread.

The Shadow in the Courtyard (Georges Simenon, 2016/#43): A reread.

Retrogame Archeology (John Aycock, 2016/#44): A low-level look at some of the programming tricks in old (as in, mostly 1980's, and some earlier than that) computer games. Intellectually fascinating on its own, it also naturally triggered a certain amount of nostalgia; not just about specific games and programming environments, but also the mindset involved in playing or woking in them. Feelings can be associated to skills as strongly as to anything else, I guess.

Eminence (Jean-Vincent Blanchard, 2016/#45): A readable biography of Richelieu; not disparaging, but rather realistic about his skills as politician and statesman. Spends a lot of time describing Richelieu's efforts and difficulties managing his relationship with Louis XIII, which was clearly a more-than-full-time job on itself and, in a political system like France's, a prerequisite for doing anything else; it's fascinating how the still not quite centralized politics of the place and time are shown in the frequent *military* challenges from nobles (including relatives) to the monarchy, something that definitely feels pre-modern. If nothing else, Richelieu wasn't just a passionate patron of theater (seriously, he spent a lot of money and time on incredibly luxurious theater halls and plays), but also quite good at staging psychologically impressive political drama, not that people around him were particularly stoic either. I mean, the concept and practice of the "royal favorite" is fascinating from a comparative point of view, particularly the custom of giving them power in addition to money and palaces; human, perhaps, in the context of a culture where government was something you did instead of an entity you were part of (and would've probably applied to female mistresses as well if not for the axiomatic misogyny), but awfully problematic from a practical point of view.

Might as Well be Dead (Rex Stout, 2016/#46): A shortish, pleasant Nero Wolfe story (despite an unexpected death).


Maybe another day

Began reading Maslow's The Farther Reaches of Human Nature, but gave up about half a chapter into it. I like the idea of looking at healthy psychological mechanisms being as important as looking as pathologies, and I'm of course always interested in human self-improvement, but Maslow's concept of a well-defined class of superior human beings being all-around superior, and his tacit certainty that there's only one way of being healthy, and that he can instinctively pick the "better humans" out, are rather troubling. His affirmation that psychologically healthy beings are always quick, certain, and correct in their moral judgments, and his casual inclusion of homosexuality among the "obviously" unhealthy behaviors, were just two among the rapidly accumulating warning signs.

I don't want to go Godwin, but the temptation is certainly there. So I dumped that book and instead read a biography of Richelieu.


Books! (History and Crime Edition)

The Creator (Clifford D. Simak, 2016/#29): Interesting, somewhat uneven, very old-style collection of SF stories.

The Causal Angel (Hannu Rajaniemi, 2016/#30): Not as good as The Quantum Thief, perhaps better than The Fractal Prince. Best read as a continuous history, and perhaps better than it looks, if that makes sense

By Steppe, Desert, and Ocean: The Birth of Eurasia (Barry Cunliffe, 2016/#31): Any book covering "the internal connectivity of Eurasia between the origin of agriculture and the XIVth century" is, of necessity, going to be a radical oversimplification. That said, and with a long string of caveats as to the number of guesses and debatable specific points, this is an incredible high-level view of Eurasian history in that period, as long as you focus on interactions between societies (which is the point of the book) rather than the details of their internal life. Not that the latter is completely ignored, quite the contrary, but the priority are clearly non-local interactions and their effects.

Plots of Opportunity (Albert D. Pionke, 2016/#32): A nice study on the role in Victorian England of the topos of the secret society in journalistic and literary texts; it's certainly an interesting thread to follow, and, aside from a certain lack of pithiness, an enjoyable read.

A Burglar's Guide to the City (Geoff Manaugh, 2016/#33): I can't call it disappointing — it was a very enjoyable and educational read — but it has that peculiar texture specific to a book in which a single fascinating insight is repeated multiple times, not illuminating but rather reflecting a number of examples and stories. The first chapter is the best, if nothing else because the example is the most interesting (YMMV).

Lending to the Borrower from Hell (Mauricio Drelichman and Hans-Joachim Voth, 2016/#34): If Philip II defaulted so frequently (and infamously), how come he kept being able to borrow money from people he couldn't execute if they refused? Based on data sets that must have been extremely painful to extract from the original XVIth century contracts (and I complain about poorly formatted CSV files!), the authors show that (a) Spanish fiscal policy was actually very responsible, (b) the financial engineering involved in the loans made for very sophisticated and effective risk-sharing and insurance, and (c) therefore, both the Genoese's constant loaning to Philip II and Philip II's constant borrowing from the Genoese, made perfect financial sense. That's the opposite of what I believed earlier today, but their analysis is convincing. Fascinating.


Books! (Empires and Old Tales Edition)

Trio for Blunt Instruments (Rex Stout, 2016/#23): The "trio of small novellas" Nero Wolfe books aren't my favorite ones, but this was enjoyable enough.

The League of Frightened Men (Rex Stout, 2016/#24): A weird Nero Wolfe book. The plot is more or less traditional, but everybody's voices and actions (beginning of course with Archie's inner voice) are out of character. It was a disturbing read.

The Confucian-Legalist State (Dingxin Zhao, 2016/#25): An extremely fascinating book describing a high-level, integrated overview of Chinese political development. Very explicitly opinionated against some of the scholarly consensus, according to the author; I don't know enough about the field to be able to tell, but, by the same token, I found it very informative. Recommended.

The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire (Edward N. Luttwak, 2016/#26): As good as I thought it'd be. It meshes well with what I've been reading about the Late (Western) Empire, and paints a clear idea of what the Romans were doing and why. If nothing else, Luttwak is usually a conceptually compelling and straightforward writer.

The Lost World of Byzantium (Jonathan Harris, 2016/#27): A good book on the history of the Byzantine Empire, basically answering the question of how the hell they survived for so long, and all the ways in which they also shot themselves in the foot. Perhaps could be viewed as a more anecdotal version of Luttwak's The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire.

The Story of the Science Fiction Magazine, Part I: 1926-1935 (Ed. Michael Ashley, 2016/#28): I grew up reading these stories (no, I'm not that old, they were already in historical collections). Bad as they are in many senses, I really enjoyed reading them.


Books! (Conquest and Magic Edition)

The Rosicrucian Enlightenment (Frances Yates, 2016/#19): A reread. It was particularly interesting to re-read this not long after reading Ackroyd's history of the English civil wars. James I's foreign policy was a mess, and he was far from a nice person, but, in his defense, he was trying to avoid the war, caught between the English' many variations of protestantism and the Hapsburg gold and steel. Not in his defense, he probably hastened it by his bumbling.

The Sultan's Admiral (Ernie Bradford, 2016/#20): The writing is a bit dated, although definitely not in an Eurocentric way. This is consistent with his goal, which is to rehabilitate (or at least clarify) Barbarossa's reputation in Europe, and explain his enduring fame in Turkey and North Africa. After reading this biography, and even after some cautious discounting, I can very much see the point: his activities were as awful as those of his contemporaries (including pretty much all European states), but he was very, very good at them. Bradford makes parallels between his career and that of Francis Drake, and I think those are valid ones, mutatis mutandis. Two personal notes: One, Barbarossa seems to have been that rare kind of adventurer who dies old, rich, healthy, powerful, and respected (well, except, eventually, by his enemies). A difficult trick, that one. Two, I had read before, of course, about Venice's protracted and painful loss of his territorial spoils from the Fourth Crusade once the Turks took Constantinople, but it was very interesting to see it happening, as it where, from the other side.

On Late Style (Edward W. Said, 2016/#21): A series of essays (from an incomplete manuscript of the book, put together with other text) about "late" artistic production (music and writing, in particular); Said is using late not just as in "too late," or "late in life," but also indicating not an elegant, serene capstone to a creative career, but rather a chronologically or artistically dissonant note. Quite engaged with Adorno. Some observations that I found interesting, and of course plenty of things I had no idea of, but not something I have the background to fully evaluate (or perhaps the interests to fully enjoy).

The Fall of Cities in the Mediterranean (Ed. Bachvarova, Dutsch, Suter, 2016/#22): This book explores (from different angles, and with different degrees of interestingness) the forms and concepts of the city lament, from the oldest Mesopotamian lamentations of around 2000 BCE, to Greek and Roman representations of conquered cities (most of them in theater and literature), up to Constantinople and the Asia Minor Catastrophe of 1922. I thought I'd enjoy the Mesopotamian chapters more, but the ones about and around Troy-Greece-Rome are fascinating, with lots of attention being paid to Hecuba in particular and the point of view of the conquered in general. I hadn't known there's a lost play from somebody called Phrynichus called the Capture of Miletus that traumatized his audience so badly that after the first showing they fined the author and forbade the play, or any other about the topic, from being produced again. Now *that*'s writing.


The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction Volume 2 (Ed. George Mann, 2016/#13): As advertised. Late 2000's science-fiction short stories; nothing astounding, and a few underwhelming ones, but overall I enjoyed it.

The Dynamics of Disaster (Susan Kieffer, 2016/#14): A disappointing book on natural disasters. The author clearly knows the topic, but I found the structure of the exposition unenlightening, and the writing itself not particularly good.

A Murder By The Book (Rex Stout, 2016/#15): This one felt untidy, but in a satisfactory way (for me, not for Nero and Archie). Basically, it was one of those cases in which they have to muddle through and more or less make things work, which is of course as entertaining as when they are at their best.

Before Midnight (Rex Stout, 2016/#16): An enjoyable one.

Paradox Lost (Frederic Brown, 2016/#17): A reread. This kind of book, a collection of short SF stories from the 1970's and before, was in a way the backbone of my reading during my late childhood and early teens. I loved them then, and unarguable stylistic and technical issues aside, I still do.

The Golden Spiders (Rex Stout, 2016/#18): A Nero Wolfe story mostly by the numbers, which isn't a bad thing if you're me.


Books! (Ghosts and Empires Edition)

The Climax of Rome (Michael Grant, 2016/#7): It's easy to see the late history of the western Roman Empire as something of an ongoing catastrophe, and in many senses it was, but it was also an spirited and creative attempt to sustain a political entity of staggering ambition given their technological and demographic realities. One way of looking at it (not the author's, and perhaps untenably teleological), would be that the survival of the Roman Empire required the deployment of military might perhaps surpassing that of an Early Modern state, more than a thousand years before technological and societal developments made it even marginally possible; and yet, for a couple of centuries, and at staggering human cost, they made a bloody good attempt of it. The author is somewhat snobbish, and certainly philosophically opinionated, but he takes the Romans in the context of what they were facing, what they wanted to do, and what (material, intellectual, and, he would say, spiritual) resources they had at hand, and that's of no little value.

Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (part 2) (M. R. James, 2016/#8): A seamless extension of the first one.

Civil War: The History of England Volume III (Peter Ackroyd, 2016/#9): Ackroyd's ongoing history of England is, I think, a very good one, and this volume is as good as the previous two. I don't know how to segue into that, so I'll just say it: I laughed out loud when I read that, after a series of bungled military operations, people began to call Buckingham "the duke of Fuckingham." Things like that warm your heart with the undeniable unity of the human soul.

Please Pass the Guilt (Rex Stout, 2016/#10): A bit half-cooked, to be honest.

Ghosts by Gaslight (Ed. Jack Dann and Nick Gevers, 2016/#11): An enjoyable compilation of neo-Victorian (rather than Steampunk) supernatural stories.

A Thin Ghost and Others (M. R. James, 2016/#12): In the vein Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, but perhaps a trifle more perfunctory.


Sapir-Whorfing like there's no tomorrow

I'm trying to think of it as the Abundance Non-Problem: when you have more things that you want and can afford to do than time in which to do them, so you have to choose.

Case in point:

mrinesi@hannibal:~$ ls docs/queue/books/ |wc -l

This shouldn't feel like a problem, yet it does. And it's not something that's going to go away, unless we mess things up spectacularly; if anything, it's getting worse better more so. So it's more of a psychological readjustment (infinite books not being something any of us last century dinosaurs ever grew up with) than a technical or logistical one.

(I think I might have written about this in the past. I'm very likely to write about this in the future. Because, dammit, infinite books. It's existentially unsettling.)


cass, can you not

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