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Books! (Words and Money Edition)

Heyday (Ben Wilson, 2017/#25): Cf. this post.

Cunning Plans (Warren Ellis, 2017/#26): A short collection of his talks. Nothing new if you follow his writing, but he has an interesting sense of humor; I wonder how that comes across on the stage.

Elektrograd (Warren Ellis, 2017/#27): Not sure it counts as a book - a Kindle single, maybe? A bit formulaic, anyway, environment aside (and in our atemporal technopastiche shared fictional meta-universe, I guess the environment is non-formulaic in a by now formulaic way).

The Taste of Conquest (Michael Krondl, 2017/#28): An informal look at the history of the European spice trade, with chronological sections focused on Venice, Lisbon, and Amsterdam. It's more general interest book than history, so a certain degree of fudging shouldn't matter, but the way it describes the Fourth Crusades makes me somewhat skeptical of the rest of the historical material. Not uninteresting, in any case.

The Limits of Empire (Benjamin Isaac, 2017/#29): Looking in quite a bit of detail to the epigraphic and archaeological evidence, this books postulates that the Romans didn't really think in geographical terms, or of a Grand Strategy, and that in practical terms they had no concept of or interest in defensive boundaries: limes never referred to defensive works as we understand them, and troops were usually deployed to protect commercial routes and so on (in other terms, with an eye on dealing with rebellions and maintaining Roman authority, not defending or policing provinces in the way a modern state would be expected to). It's a convincing argument, I think. Perhaps a way to summarize it would be that the Romans conquered peoples, not territories, that they did it out of the momentary interests or whims of emperors or generals, not any coordinated strategy, and that they didn't think they needed an excuse, or that this conquest gave them much or any obligations towards the conquered.

Common Reader, Second Series (Virginia Woolf, 2017/#30): A very interesting set of biographical and critical reviews. Never hagiographical, but neither unkind, and both the thoughts and the prose used to express them makes obvious her own impressive talents. She has Borges' gift of making you enjoy reading her opinions on books and authors you've never read nor will want to.

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Yes.


Yet who reads to bring about an end, however desirable? Are there not some pursuits that we practise because they are good in themselves, and some pleasures that are final? And is not this among them? I have sometimes dreamt, at least, that when the Day of Judgment dawns and the great conquerors and lawyers and statesmen come to receive their rewards–their crowns, their laurels, their names carved indelibly upon imperishable marble–the Almighty will turn to Peter and will say, not without a certain envy when he sees us coming with our books under our arms, "Look, these need no reward. We have nothing to give them here. They have loved reading."


Virginia Woolf, the last paragraph of How Should One Read a Book?

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Books! (Monsters and Empires Edition)

Anno Dracula 1899 and Other Stories (Kim Newman, 2017/#19): A mostly delightful set of short stories, intertextual to the point that a couple of them are not even thinly disguised comic book fanfics.

Strangers No More (various, 2017/#20): A collection of short sci-fi stories from the 1950's, penned by the usual suspects. Uneven and not really subtle, but (most of them) fun to read.

Galactic Empires (Ed. Neil Clarke, 2017/#21): A very good and relatively diverse set of sci-fi short stories, with the common theme of one form or another of galactic (or at least multi-system) empire.

God, Space, and City in the Roman Imagination (Richard Jenkyns, 2017/#22): Full of interesting ideas and observations about how the Romans thought about politics, religion, and the city of Rome itself. Some points of interest: conspectus (in the usage of the book, the idea of being visible as one of the basis of social practice, the way differences in the height at which you lived codified political power, the importance of having your own crowd, the uses of colonnades, and a very long et cetera. Much recommended.

Furta Sacra (Patrick J. Geary, 2017/#23): I came to this book, unsurprisingly, through my interest in the theft of the corpse of St. Mark by Venetian merchants in the IXth century (something that sounds like a medieval Leverage AU). Turns out it was something of a medieval tradition with a very stylized (and usually highly fictional) literary representation, the translatio. The power of relics isn't as important to Christian practice (I think?) as it used to be, but at the time it was central to it; popular piety found a more practical locus on the bodies of saints, who were thought to still have identity, agency, and power.

Sexuality and the Gothic Magic Lantern (David J. Jones, 2017/#24): I hadn't known of the cultural impact of magic lanterns before cinema (it'd be interesting to think about why some obsolete media are remembered, and why some others aren't). Granting its popularity and disquieting characteristics, the author's argument that it influenced contemporary Gothic literature (and, given the way magic lanterns where partly used for risque and outright pornographic materials — that old "new media is always used for porn sooner rather than later" rule of thumb — some of the ways in which authors approached the very charged issue of sex in Gothic fiction) is absolutely believable, regardless of how much of the details I found too Freudian to fully trust.

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Books! (Old Weird Things Edition)

The Hidden planet: Science Fiction Adventures on Venus (Donald A. Wollheim, 2017/#13): Not really good, but entertaining enough.

The Best of Robert Silverberg (Robert Silverberg, 2017/#14): A collection of short stories. They are all quite good, and classics on their own right; I think I read all of them before in different anthologies. Silverberg deserves to be better known than he is.

People and Goods on the Move (Ed. Özlem Çaykent, Luca Zavagno, 2017/#15): A collection of essays on very specific aspects and particular cases of, well, the movement of people and goods in the Mediterranean between Late Antiquity and the Early Modern age. It's not a good book: the quality of the writing is middling-to-bad, translations aren't better (bad translations of good texts can appear as bad writing at the sentence or paragraph level, but I don't think it spoils good overall structure), and some of the logical argumentation isn't. But the miscellany of information is indeed interesting. One hypothesis I do like, although I cannot judge its empirical validity, is that the rupture of North-South cross-Mediterranean trade wasn't directly driven by religious differences after the Islamic conquest, but rather because the warfare that preceded and accompanied increased drastically the local availability of slaves, which was pretty much the only thing Europe could export to the technically more advanced and ecologically richer lands to the South. It's not inconsistent with the little I know of, say, trade with Byzantium, and I confess the historical irony does add to the let's call it aesthetic appeal of the theory (which is of course irrelevant to its validity).

The Gothic Condition (David Punter, 2017/#16): Plenty of interesting observations, but more suggestive than convincing, and least interesting when it veers into the psychoanalytical. A good read nonetheless.

The Military Orders Volume 6 (Part 1) (Ed. Jochen Schenk, Mike Carr, 2017/#17): A set of conference papers mostly but not exclusively focused on the Hospitallers, touching on everything from the architectural details of individual buildings to aspects of grand strategy (one example of the minor but fascinating facts: there's a good argument to be made for Saladin having been one of the main forces behind the image of Templars and Hospitallers as elite warriors, as a tool of political propaganda directed to his allies)). Highly uneven, as you'd expect, but worth it for the miscellany.

The Military Orders Volume 6 (Part 2) (Ed. Jochen Schenk, Mike Carr, 2017/#18): See above.

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Books! (Mostly Classic SF Edition)

The Variable Man (Philip K. Dick, 2017/#7): A collection of five novellas. Not his best work, but interesting and enjoyable nonetheless.

Ephemeral City (Rosa Salzberg, 2017/#8): The book's subtitle being Cheap Print and Urban Culture in Renaissance Venice, you would think that I'd love every page, and you'd be right. I've read about Venice's printing industry before, and I'm fascinated by the avvisi, but I hadn't know about the (unprecedented) lower-end of printed media: single sheets or booklets of everything from Papal bulls to ribald parodies of famous works (commercial erotic fanfic, in other words), produced sometimes very quickly, sold sometimes in "proper" bookshops and sometimes by street sellers peddling them together with, say, soap. Singers and actors promoting them (listen to a comedic song on the street, buy the lyrics to sing them to your mates at the pub), or using them to promote their acts. Et cetera, et cetera. The sheer *energy* of this new medium.

The Year's Best S-F 11th Annual Edition (Ed. Judith Merril, 2017/#9): Seems like the early 1960's were a very good year for short SF. Highly recommended.

Tales of Ten Worlds (Arthur C. Clarke, 2017/#10): Mostly meh. I find Clarke overrated; I like his best at his most bradburian.

The Hugo Winners (Isaac Asimov, 2017/#11): Classic stories, both for the genre and in my life. A reread.

Galaxies Like Grains of Sand (Brian W. Aldiss, 2017/#12): A "deep time history of the future" in the form of very loosely interlocked short stories. I didn't like it too much; it tries to be poetic and philosophical more than grounded on believable developments, but it doesn't quite pull it off. The last story was a particular disappointment.

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Books! (SF, War, and Metaphysics Edition)

Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace (Edward N. Luttwak, 2017/#1): He's not wrong in his description of the "paradoxes" of strategy, but they only seem strange or specific to war if you haven't studied even basic game theory. This makes this a difficult book to read, the intellectual equivalent of the famously unsettling experience of watching somebody use a program you're proficient in without using any of the keyboard shortcuts, but being unable to tell them what to do.

The Best from Fantasy and Science Fiction (Ed. Edward L. Ferman, 2017/#2): I read this book when I was very young. Classic SF from, say, the 40's to the 70's was one of the core threads of my childhood and early teens; going back to them is a form of personal archeology, not just of places and moments (like the book club that was, for years, the main source of reading material for me, with its serendipitous shelf of second-hand SF books), but also of much of how I see the world, and even my aesthetic preferences.

Third from the Sun (Richard Matheson, 2017/#3): Mostly enjoyable, although the societal assumptions are very 1950. It's amusing how many of the characters are writers.

Montaigne and Shakespeare: The emergence of modern self-consciousness (Robert Ellrodt, 2017/#4): I'm not averse to, if not always fully swayed by, this kind of thing, but this isn't a very convincing book, I'm afraid.

A Bloody and Barbarous God (Petra Mundik, 2017/#5): A look at the metaphysics of Cormac McCarthy's main novels, from the framework of Gnosticism (mainly, with a side look at Buddhism). I liked it very much, although "enjoy" wouldn't be the right word for something analyzing such a bleak writer from such a bleak point philosophical vantage point.

Untouched by Human Hands (Robert Sheckley, 2017/#6): A collection of SF stories from the late '70s. A bit ham-fisted in their analogies, but not unenjoyable if you go with it.

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The Grand Strategy of Philip II (Geoffrey Parker, 2016/#94): Philip II is one of the most interesting rulers in history. He wasn't just the one of the most powerful in the world during his long reign, but his government style was a combination of what we would consider contextually modern characteristics (e.g. his heavy reliance on written information flows) with a rather old-fashioned political structure. At the personal level he's also very interesting; not many people with comparable power matched his fanatical dedication to both religion and his duties as he saw them (which was, to a very large degree, in religious terms). This book is probably the best I've read about the man and his government. It paints a convincing, concise picture of the aims, strengths, and limitations of his rule.

Court and Politics in Papal Rome, 1492-1700 (Gianvittorio Signorotto, Maria Antonietta Visceglia, 2016/#95): An uneven but often interesting look at what it says on the title. It looks in more depth at an interesting pattern in The Secret Archives of the Vatican: the weird but fully necessary role of the "cardinal-nephew". The Catholic Church was one of the strangest of political structures, a non-dynastic elective absolute theocracy with very short reigns due to the advanced age of most elected Popes. This made the accumulation of power in any group or family nearly impossible, and contributed to complex and increasingly venal politics.

Three for the Chair (Rex Stout, 2016/#96): The usual style of plot, but a somewhat creepy, slightly off-kilter Archie. That was unenjoyable.

The Congress of Vienna (Brian E. Vick, 2016/#97): Not a story of diplomatic negotiations and the geopolitical and military context, but rather at the informal side of things: salons, the press, pamphlets, shows, etc. Quite interesting, and the Habsburgs, as always, are fascinating.

Narconomics: How to Run a Drug Cartel (Tom Wainwright, 2016/#98): A look at the drug industry through the lens of business and economics concepts, with plenty of both on-the-ground vignettes and concrete data. I was aware of the broad outline of most of the arguments the author presents, but it's an enjoyable and informative book.

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Books! (A Quite Secretive Edition)

Kingship: The Politics of Enchantment (Francis Oakley, 2016/#83): An interesting thesis (the innovation of Abrahamic monotheistic religions was ultimately responsible for the desacralization of politics politicians), but the evidence it presents feels inconclusive.

The Silent Speaker (Rex Stout, 2016/#84): The best way I can think of describing the beginning of this novel is cheekily snappy. Whether it works depends on the reader's relationship with Wolfe, Archie, and Stout. I was fine with it, but I'm not very discriminating when it comes to my favorite book series.

Genoa, 'La Superba': The Rise and Fall of a Merchant Pirate Superpower (Nicholas Walton, 2016/#85): The kind of book that is most often written about Venice. I don't think the author is very good, and of course Genoa isn't Venice, but it's an spirited attempt nonetheless, and not uninformative.

The Communal Age in Western Europe, c.1100-1800 (Beat Kümin, 2016/#86): A look at Europe from the (social) bottom-up.

Modernism and the Occult (John Bramble, 2016/#87): Entertainingly scathing at times. A good observation is how occultism during the British High Empire served as part of an "alliance" between waning aristocrats and (similarly waning) former elites in the colonies. And there's any number of interesting influences crisscrossing the world, as always.

A New Philosophy of the Moon (Mircea Eliade, 2016/#88): I like some of Eliade's works, and this is a collection of early articles, so some leniency is warranted, but I think this one is full of crap.

The Secret Archives of the Vatican (Maria Louisa Ambrosini and Mary Willis, 2916/#89): Not a Dan Brown-ish thriller, but a factual history of the archives, and of events in the history of the Catholic Church as seen through their lens. Awfully charming; the author is both a believing Catholic and very much in and of the 1960s, which adds a certain peculiar texture to the work (e.g., mentions of nuclear war).

The Empire that Would Not Die (John Haldon, 2016/#90): An interesting look at some of the mechanics of how the Byzantine empire adapted to the first shock of the Arab invasions.

Philosophy and the Puzzles of Hamlet (Leon Harold Craig, 2016/#91): This kind of speculation can never be truly (dis)proven, but it's an interesting close reading with some fun possibilities. Were the pirates working for Hamlet, the whole thing prearranged? Was The Mousetrap designed not to make the King betray himself from guilt, but from fear, as Hamlet tells him — and only him — that he knows what he couldn't possibly know? I hadn't realized the full scope and strength of the applicable mourning rules, nor how *literally* incestous did Elizabethan England find that sort of marriage. That makes Hamlet's mood much less puzzling. I'm not so sure about the applicability of the author's references to contemporary discussions in cosmology (although it's always fun how everything and everybody is always so closely related to each other, back then when the were fewer people and Dee's 4,000 books library was the second largest in Western Europe). Worth reading, though, if you're into this kind of thing.

The Age of Secrecy: Jews, Christians, and the Economy of Secrets, 1400-1800 (Daniel Jütte, 2016/#92): A look at the concept of secret during those centuries (a different epistemology and society implied a different evaluation of secrecy; e.g. talking publicly about a secret, without disclosing it, was an accepted and useful form of communication). Taking advantage of Christian prejudices both positive and negative, many European Jews participated in what the author calls an "economy of secrets", an overlapping set of activities merging seamlessly from alchemy to engineering to cryptography to diplomacy to card tricks to gunpowder production to... You get the idea.

The Projection and Limitations of Imperial Powers, 1618-1850 (Ed. Frederick C. Schneid, 2016/#93): A collection of essays on military history, most (but not all) of them in the European context. I found the quality of writing and argument uneven, but overall it was interesting.

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Books! (Empires Everywhere Edition)

The Mind of Egypt (Jan Assmann, 2016/#77): An utterly fascinating book about the culture, or rather the evolving Weltanschauung, of Egypt from its pre-dynastic origins down to the Greek conquest. There's a lot to unpack here, directly about Egypt, of course, but also, by comparison, about our own culture. The book doesn't paint a single unchanging "Egyptian worldview", but its evolution feels exactly as alien as it should for somebody from a very different civilization. e.g., the meaning of ma'at, the continuity between the world of the living and that of the dead, who exactly is in charge of keeping society and/or the cosmos working, the precise relationship between kings and gods, and so on: all of this kept shifting through the thousands of years of Egyptian history, but as varying answers to a set of questions rather different from what other civilizations asked. Going beyond what the book says, it looked to me as some deeply weird homology between theology, economy, ecology, sociology, and the state, specially during the Old Kingdom. For us they are completely different spheres, but for them it wasn't: the cycle of the Nile that made agriculture possible, the state granaries, social links (without memory there was no reciprocity), the afterlife, the daily path of the sun, the rituals... It wasn't that the world (which included the afterworld) was bad, you just had to keep making it work day after day and year after year, and the state/religion/society/everything was how you did it. It's an strangely satisfying picture from an intellectual and aesthetic point of view, machine-like without being mechanistic, although not one I'd care to live in. (An idle thought is whether a society of this kind wouldn't be optimally designed for something like a long-term generational interstellar ship, where you want cultural stability (you can't forget to do maintenance rituals, or even how to read manuals!), ecological (life support systems) awareness, social cohesion, etc.)

Extra points of suddenly illuminated strangeness for the observation that tombs were in some senses the life-work of Egyptians, how they organized and expressed their sense of selves in the context of the afterlife (which wasn't in opposition to this world, but rather a continuation of). An oversimplification, I'm sure, but it does make a bit the whole thing a bit more understandable to me.

Storming the Heavens (Antonio Santosuosso, 2016/#78): An interesting book about the Roman army and its impact on their economy and politics. It's also rather partisan about Roman politics (e.g., the author is very pro-Cesar and pro-Octavian, and more willing than I am to take Roman's explicit statements about morals and so on at face value, particularly about political opponents), which for a book published on 2001 is somewhat hilarious.

The Dynamics of Ancient Empires (Ed. Ian Morris and Walter Scheidel, 2016/#79): A collection of essays on different empires (Neo-Assyrian, Persian, Athenian, Roman, and Byzantine) from slightly different points of view, but all of them focused on what (for the author) makes a polity an empire, and how those empires worked and failed to work. Unevenly written (the chapter on Rome felt bad, the one on the Neo-Assyrian empire quite good) but at times very interesting; the Morris essay postulates that because of the relative uniformity of Hellas, and the way it was developed and sustained itself, the Athenian Empire was less an empire than a failed attempt at creating a territorial state (the analogy would be Rome eventually losing the Latin wars, France never coalescing, or, well, Italy after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire). The Scheidel article, though, is a painful mess: basically, the argument is that we have empires because males are biologically programmed to have as many children as possible. I was very surprised by this, as I've read a couple of books from him and they used very different, and IMHO much more fruitful, approaches.

Roman Honor (Carlin A. Barton, 2016/#80): A necessarily unsystematic (and, by a related necessity, impressionistic and empathetic) look at the psychology of the Romans. As with all such books, it's difficult and might be impossible to gauge the correctness of its thesis (and particularly of its later conclusions) but at the very least it's highly suggestive and (to a layperson like me) very informative.

Revenger (Alastair Reynolds, 2016/#81): Somewhat by the numbers as an adventure yarn. Interesting world building, maybe, but for some reason a couple of days after finishing the book my opinion of it seems to have become less positive.

An Empire of Air and Water (Siobhan Carroll, 2016/#82): The framework of the book is awfully specific and the thesis is rather vague — an study of the impact of representations of atopic spaces (uninhabitable, blank; the poles, the ocean, the atmosphere, caves) on the British empire between 1750 and 1850 — but, despite some expository redundancies, the book is full of interesting details and observations.

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