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Books! (Courtly Life Edition)

Collected Poems 1909-1962 (T. S. Eliot, 2017/#43): The more Catholic he gets, the more his poetry suffers. But he's an incisive painter of the fleeting psychological moment, with almost the casual venom of a Wilde, and has an astoundingly precise command of the English language, particularly when he's describing what he cannot describe. It's a weird combination of skills and weaknesses. (For what it's worth, I had already read most of the poems in this collection; the new ones were mostly minor or casual poems that didn't feel particularly interesting.)

The Court and Court Society in Ancient Monarchies (Ed. A. J. S. Spawforth, 2017/#44): A suggestive collection of papers about courts in (some) ancient monarchies, with emphasis on conceptual and structural issues rather than purely descriptive material. There's a lot of heterogeneity in terms of available material (between e.g. Ancient Egypt and Augustan Rome) as well as some heterogeneity in the analytical style of the authors, but it was certainly interesting.

Economy of the Unlost (Anne Carson, 2017/#45): As most books of literary analysis, it's more suggestive than analytical (particularly the more analytical it gets), but it's a fascinating one, specially about Simonides, who, besides being an all-around famous poet, apparently was the best epitaph writer of Antiquity, invented the method of loci for mnemonics (the classic one, pun not intended), and added a string to the lyre and a few letters to the Greek alphabet. Oh, and he was the first poet to demand and get money for creating poetry. A highly recommended book, with the caveat stated above.

Royal Courts in Dynastic States and Empires (Ed. Jeroen Duindam, Tülay Artan, and Metin Kunt, 2017/#46): Heterogeneous in approaches and conclusions, and at times extremely focused on a single event or person, but no less interesting because of it.

In Defiance of Time: Antiquarian Writing in Early Modern England (Angus Vine, 2017/#47): A charming if not excessively strong romp through what you could call proto-antiquarian writing.

The Dynastic Centre and the Provinces: Agents and Interactions (Ed. Jeroen Duindam and Sabine Dabringhaus, 2017/#48): Something of a complement to the two books above about court life: a set of essays about how different empires (some European, a couple of Chinese dynasties, and the Ottoman Empire) managed the relationship between center and periphery; viceroys, troubleshooting agents, royal entrances into cities, and so on. Very interesting.


Books! (Wars and Coups Edition)

Governing Through Technology: Information Artifacts and Social Practice (Jannis Kallinikos, 2017/#37): Basically "The Medium is the Message" for ERP software and the internet in general (weirdly, I don't recall it mentioning McLuhan). It makes the interesting remark than even before we "negotiate" with a technology we've already been affected by (trained to be conversant with) it, and that the flexibility of software comes paired with extremely rigid constraints. I would add: we confuse the number of options with their range (this feels like a short way to describe a lot of situations...). I think it misses the mark in a number of things, but it's certainly an interesting book.

Eliphas Levi and the French Occult Revival (Christopher McIntosh, 2017/#38): An entertaining book, if not one that'll reinforce your faith on the rational powers of the human mind.

Caesar's Legacy: Civil War and the Emergence of the Roman Empire (Josiah Osgood, 2017/#39): A cleverly titled book about the civil war(s) between the murder of Julius Caesar and the immediate aftermath of Actium. It's a period of time I haven't read much about — a lot of history books go "Republic, Caesar, Ides, mumblemumble, Augustus." Yet the way the book describes it, it was a deeply traumatic period pretty much around the Mediterranean, and particularly in Italy, and you can't really understand Augustus' empire (or, it turns out, Roman imperial literature) without the background of the wars. Highly recommended.

Sacred Plunder: Venice and the Aftermath of the Fourth Crusade (David M. Perry, 2017/#40): Mostly a study of the ways people narrated and reacted to the transfer plunder pious theft movement of sacred relics from Constantinople to the West after the Fourth Crusade, with something of an emphasis on Venice. Not as much as I had hoped, though, and with more textual analysis than I'd have liked, so the book was a relative disappointment.

Seizing Power: The Strategic Logic of Military Coups (Naunihal Singh, 2017/#41): A reasonable application of game theory (more specifically, the concept of coordination games) to coups. It actually applies to most organizational changes, I think.

The Atlantic in World History (Karen Ordahl Kupperman, 2017/#42): A short, somewhat impressionistic look at history with the Atlantic Ocean as the guiding focus. Interesting facts and observations, but probably not as structured as it could be.


The Terror (Arthur Machen, 2017/#31): Much like The Great God Pan, I found it ridiculous in form, content, politics, and spirit, and yet somehow not unenjoyable. Censorship plays a large role in this novel, but not as something to be feared — the whole text lies upon a bedrock of trust in the Government — and the explanation of the explanation, so to speak, echoes the least agreeable sides of Chesterton (now that I think about it, there's more than one Chestertonian element in the novel, not all of them unsatisfactory ones).

Harvesting the Biosphere (Vaclav Smil, 2017/#32): Mostly a bunch of numbers interleaved with why most of those numbers are unavoidably imprecise estimations, with some drily snarky asides as to how other numbers are avoidably imprecise estimations, but as those numbers are probably our current best guesses as to how much biomass the Earth creates every year and how much we take off it (for varying definitions of both, historically and in the past) it's a pretty fascinating book. You could make a good case for having a year-long high school course based on his books; they can be usefully understood without a lot of background, and they provide the same sort of framework that, e.g., general historical surveys do, but for aspects of the world that are seldom covered.

Pax Romana (Adrian Goldsworthy, 2017/#33): Something of a complement to The Limits of Empire, with more of an emphasis on the way the Empire worked, rather than on the ways it didn't. It's not sparing on the brutal and self-serving nature of Rome, but puts it in the context of a world where that was pretty much the norm, and notes that local polities, at least at the beginning of Roman influence, saw them more than anything as a tool in their own internal conflicts. A good book.

Popes, Cardinals, and War (D. S. Chambers, 2017/#34): As described by its subtitle: The Military Church in Renaissance and Early Modern Europe. Interesting, although heavier on events than causal forces (and the epilogue is a bit uncomfortable; you'll know what I mean if you read it). Read just after Pax Romana, at some level it feels like a farce — can't anybody *keep* a conquest any more, dammit? — but the comparison isn't fair. The Romans first expanded in that same geographical environment, which was also a patchwork of near-peer polities, but everything from economics to the military was different (in large part due to the Romans' own developments) and they never had to deal with the temptation of inviting the French, the Spanish, etc (given how often *they* were called into a zone in the same way, you could read this book as karmic comeuppance for the previous one, if you were so inclined).

Understanding Latin Literature (Susanna Morton Braund, 2017/#35): A very good introductory text, specially for a relative newcomer like me.

Hamlet (William Shakespeare, 2017/#36): A frequent reread. This time around, I noticed that you could stage a version of the play where almost everybody is, as Tumblr says, "sassy af" (with Hamlet on his own category of "savage af") without changing a single word, just adding ironical expressions and eye-rolling at key places, which I'm not convinced isn't how Shakespeare directed it. Heck, even the melancholy Dane spends almost as much time cracking jokes as deploring the world, some of them quite bawdy. The audience might have cried or booed at Ophelia's death (and, I'm sure, cheered during the duel), but they also laughed a lot. By the same token, Polonius can be played as much less of a fool than he's usually portrayed as; he doesn't necessarily lack self-awareness or insight (although he's handicapped by lacking Hamlet's supernaturally sourced information), and if nothing else, he knows his job. He's overly verbose, yes, and slow to get to the point, but (a) part of it is just CYA I can relate to, (b) I shouldn't cast that particular stone, and (c) Hamlet of all people shouldn't cast that particular stone. Hamlet's relationship with Yorick gets a lot of analytical millage, but I think the young prince got part of his love of and skill in verbal jousting from Polonius, whether he knows and accepts it or not. He certainly didn't get it from his father! This directing choice, I think, wouldn't be Shakespeare's, with the foolish counselor being such an obvious character, but I can see their interactions framed by Polonius' perpetual expression of long-suffering patience as the Prince keeps throwing barbs he knows very well Polonius won't reply to in public. Frankly, I think insofar as Hamlet gives a rat's ass about anything in Denmark, he cares about his mother; the only times he really gets into the spirit of things while not being cajoled by the ghost (bad pun not intended) is when he's berating her, when he thinks the King is *in her room* (in contrast with every other time he has been near the King, here he didn't had to talk himself into or out of doing anything, he just went from zero to *swordstab* in half a second) and after the King has accidentally killed her. Even after he foils the King's first death trap for him he's just "meh, I'll get him in a bit."

Amazon Kindle + 1-click shopping

Were I not a cheapskate with very ingrained alternative digital procurement habits, I'd probably need another job.

(On the other hand, and this is something to keep in mind for some highly theoretical future where I've emptied up by docs/queue/books directory, there's a certain elegance to the idea that instantaneous access means that in theory I could purchase only the book I'm about to read, as in those conditions there's no point in doing otherwise. Something to think about.)


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.



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?


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.


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.


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.


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.



cass, can you not

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