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(A) I love electronic books. Partly because they are extremely convenient, but mostly because, given my budget, geographical location, and reading interests, there's no way I could sustain my habit without the help of the scannier side of the net.

(B) I love having books around it's both aesthetically pleasing and emotionally comforting, both as a set and through the separate associations and memories of each one.

So you see the problem. My (growing) set of (electronic) books is out of sight, while my set of (physical) books is visible but mostly stalled. There are close to fifteen years of reading that are, to one degree or another, in my head and, as of late, on the book notes I post here, but not where I live, and I wish they were.

I don't really have a solution to this, but sounds like a good Datasthesia project (a vague idea would be some sort of cube, tablet,or projection that works as a dynamic, fractal index to my digital library).


Books! (War and Rules Edition)

Golem (Moshe Idel, 2015/#67): A fascinating book about a long and heterogeneous religious tradition; the legend of the Rabbi Loew isn't nearly the most interesting part of it.

And Four to Go (Rex Stout, 2015/#68): I swear, the byzantine mechanisms of Wolfe and Archie's relationship are often the most interesting part of these books (which is no slight on the other aspects). The sheer amount of energy, time, and brainpower these two professionally intelligent adults dedicate to the ritual complexities of their friendship-cum-psychological-warfare is astounding. And I hadn't realized this before, but Archie would have made one hell of a lawyer; he'd pretty much own any courtroom he walked into, of course, but his analytical skills for complex rule-bound situations are also superb. He's always thinking in terms of what he can, should, and must or mustn't do, legally and morally, which isn't something many characters (and certainly very few fictional detectives) do.

Brunelleschi's Dome (Ross King, 2015/#69): A history of how the Duomo of Florence was built, both in human and technical terms. I've been to Florence and admired it, but I want to go again, now that I know quite how much of an astounding technical achievement it was, how much intrigue and jealousy and art went into its construction. Fun fact one: Brunelleschi was perhaps the first person in European history to get a patent for a mechanical invention (the man was vain, secretive, ambitious, and bad with money, and also a mechanical inventor of the first order). Fun fact two: to get revenge on a guy who missed a party (!), Brunelleschi set up an elaborate prank where dozens of people, from city officers to random extras on the street, conspired to make the guy believe he had switched bodies with somebody else. The guy was so shaken up by the experience that he left the city and moved to, if I recall correctly, Poland. Brunelleschi: engineering pioneer, architectural genius, an early master of perspective, and gaslighter extraordinary. Fun fact three: a Florentine mathematician called Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli used the Duomo to make astronomical calculations to improve navigational tables. He also made an slight miscalculation regarding the size of the Earth, prompting him to send a letter and map to the King of Portugal suggesting a western route to the Indias. The King didn't buy the idea, so Toscanelli contacted one Christopher Columbus, who eventually found a backer for the ill-conceived but lucky endeavor, and I'm sure you've heard about what happened then (also, the thing about balancing an upright egg was Brunelleschi's, not Columbus).

World Without End (Hugh Thomas, 2015/#70): An overview of the development and local practices of the Spanish Empire during the reign of Philip II. Plenty of very interesting information; at times I think it takes the Spanish too much at their word, but it's true that sometimes we tend to do the opposite. The most fascinating angle (although a very minor one) is the amount of interest Spain had on the conquest of China, which at some point they thought might be accomplished with eight or ten thousand soldiers.

The Mongol Art of War (Timothy May, 2015/#71): More detailed on logistics than on tactics and strategy, but a good summary of the underlying narrative. One clear lesson, although not emphasized in the text: the Mongols were constrained by ecology, but collapsed because they couldn't solve the problem of political succession. To be fair to them, it's a very difficult one; once you have multiple independent armies, you end up almost inevitably in a late Roman mess.

An Age of Neutrals (Maartje Abbenhuis, 2015/#72): This book makes limited, but I believe well-supported, claims about the importance of the concept of neutrality as a tool of international statecraft by European countries between 1815 and 1914 (that is, the Congress of Vienna and the First World War, aka the "long" nineteenth century), with some initial forays in the centuries before that. It's certainly an interesting angle, and in the context of 21st century state-sponsored violence, it might be worth revisiting.


Books! (Money, Murder, and Canals Edition)

(It's clear 2015 is going to have an unusually low book count. Not unsurprisingly so, maybe, but I hope it doesn't become a trend.

Venice: A Literary Companion (Ian Littlewood, 2015/#62): Writing about what others wrote about and while in a city might be boring in other cases, but for Venice, it's possibly be one of the best approaches, and this book uses it to nice effect. By now, it's less a city than a consensual four-dimensional hallucination, so unique in geography and architecture, so implausible in history and manners, so overwhelmed by layers of memory, that it's not even quite real anymore.

Medici Money: Banking, Metaphysics, and Art in Fifteenth-Century Florence (Tim Parks, 2015/#63): What it says on the cover. Enthusiastically written, and it doesn't shirk from the subtly shifting but still all-pervading role of religion in their society.

The Year's Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Sixth Annual Collection (Ed. Gardner Dozois, 2015/#64): Perhaps the best annual anthology of contemporary science fiction. Of special fannish interest, Daryl Gregory's The Illustrated Biography of Lord Grimm, an street-level view of a realistically bleak and quite Eastern European Latveria (serial numbers filed off).

Three at Wolfe's Door (Rex Stout, 2015/#65): Three unconnected novellas; the format doesn't seem to cramp Nero's style, but I noticed that it doesn't leave much time for Archie's usual romantic antics.

Venice (Jan Morris, 2015/#66): A reread. One of my favorite books about my favorite city.


Books! (Modern Condition Edition)

And Be a Villain (Rex Stout, 2015/#56): A good Nero Wolfe story; curiously, I chose it at random and ended up having an Arnold Zeck angle, and thus (very indirectly) a prequel to In the Best Families.

Some Buried Cesar (Rex Stout, 2015/#57): A reread.

Addiction by Design (Natasha Dow Schüll, 2015/#58): I knew a lot of what's in this book (in my previous jobs helping online game design, Las Vegas slot machines were my personal non plus ultra of efficiency), but there was a lot I didn't knew, and it was at the same time fascinating, infuriating, and heartbreaking.

I'll Mature When I'm Dead (Dave Barry, 2015/#59): I think he's getting more conservative in his hold-er age (or maybe, hopefully, I've learned some things since I first started reading him literally half a lifetime ago), but he's probably the funniest prose writer in English this side of Pratchett at the phrase and paragraph level. His arguments and plots aren't necessarily very funny as such (and, following this, I've found his novels rather underwhelming), but he's a master of the understated turn of phrase that you both see and don't see coming. He's one of the few writers I can't but laugh aloud as I read.

Montaigne and the Life of Freedom (Felicity Green, 2015/#60): An study on what, exactly, Montaigne meant by freedom, and how he meant to get and keep it. The author stresses, rightly, the continuity between his ideas and concerns from late Antiquity, as well as the relevance of the French religious wars to his thought, as much as the originality of his conception. I keep finding Montaigne very close to my own attitudes, both for good and for ill: as for him, I count lack of responsibilities and debts to others as (of course never fully realized, and that for the best) components of my own freedom.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (Tom Stoppard, 2015/#61): Each element on its own would be interesting, but the combination of the metatextual conceit, the relentlessly bleak humor, and the language, works very well as a whole. Not having any idea of what's going on, and nobody giving us any sensible clue, is very much at the core of our experience of the world.


The Annihilation Score (Charlie Stross, 2015/#51): A competent addition to the Laundry Files, with the usual assimilation and logically coherent re-interpretation of a different genre (in this case, superheroes) inside its world. Mo is very compelling as both character and narrative voice.

State Power in Ancient China and Rome (Ed. Walter Scheiel, 2015/#52): A fascinating look at comparative state politics between what are perhaps the two archetypal empires in world history.

The Royal Hunt in Eurasian History (Thomas T. Allsen , 2015/#53): What the title says. It's quite an interesting book; the phenomenon/activity/ritual of the royal hunt ends up being a good entry point for looking at things like ecological adaptations, the ritual aspects of kingship, and premodern diplomacy.

Four Quartets (T. S. Eliot, 2015/#54): A reread.

Even In the Best Families (Rex Stout, 2015/#55): A reread. The Wolfe/Goodwin partnership is a perhaps underrated model for freelancers, a combination of pragmatic business focus, ruthless professional standards in both the work they take and how they perform it, and an astounding professional support network, not to mention unmatched work/life balance. Of course, you have to be really good to be able to pull this off to that degree, but sometimes we don't even think to try.

I think this quote from the book, something Archie says to Wolfe when the latter mentions the possibility of backing off in the face of a personal threat, points at something close to the core of how and why they work together so well:

"You damn faker," I said indulgently. "You know perfectly well that I would rather eat soap than have you think I would knuckle under to that son of a bitch, and I know that you would rather put horseradish on oysters than have me think you would. I might if you didn't know about it, and you might if I didn't know about it, but as it is we're stuck."


Books! (Old Things Edition)

(It's embarrassing how little time I've been dedicating to books these last few weeks. My schedule hasn't helped, certainly, but I've been endogenously distracted as well. That's never a good sign.)

Slow Bullet (Alastair Reynolds, 2015/#46): Neoclassic space opera (which is to a large degree Reynolds space opera). An enjoyable short novel (although it's only short in the current environment of "if it's not seven hundred pages it's a novella and won't sell"), with a classic setup, but I think the title and underlying metaphor could have been used to greater effect. Some of the bits were too clearly derivative in a non-classical way, though. No idea of why, unless it was a deliberate wink to readers.

Danubia (Simon Winder, 2015/#47): A reread. Wickedly funny history of Central Europe following the thread of the Hapsburg family, even when/while it deals with rather horrible times, people, and ideologies, that actually set up a lot some of the worst nastiness in Europe's 20th century. Somebody like Hitler becomes much less mysterious, although not a jot less evil, when you see him as a subject of the late Austro-Hungarian Empire rather than an anachronistic comprehensive German nation-state. Winder emphasizes in many places how ideas of nation-statehood rooted on (mostly, if not wholly) fabricated linguistic and historical roots intersected with a practically fractal actual distribution of "races" and "cultures" in a way that almost guaranteed terrible violence if and when people tried to implement the former in the context of the latter. Nazism was intellectually insane and ethically monstrous (not to mention pragmatically suicidal), but in all of these characteristics it was but a feverish and literalist extrapolation of strong and very disturbing pre-existing political and cultural tendencies.

A Shadow in Summer (Daniel Abraham, 2015/#48): An interesting fantasy story, the first book in a quadrilogy (obviously; today's single book is yesterday's novella). It has some novel elements (particularly the idea of binding concepts as anthropomorphic spirits and putting them to work, with all kinds of political and psychological nuances and implications), and it was an enjoyable read.

Of Walking in Ice (Werner Herzog, 2015/#49): A day-by-day, impressionistic journal of an act that wouldn't be believable in fiction: It's 1974. You're in Munich. You are told that a person you worship intellectually and artistically is dying in Paris. So you (of course!) decide that you will walk all the way to Paris, because she will not die if you do that. So you walk, and she doesn't die. I don't enjoy Herzog's movies, but the man is an endless source of fascination to me.

Siena: City of Secrets (Jane Tylus, 2015/#50): One of the now common impressionistic and loosely organized single-city guidebooks/histories/meditations. It's not a bad one, and the first one I read about Siena, but not an outstanding one either.


Books! (Mostly Crimes and Maths Edition)

Toda Mafalda (Quino, 2015/#41): A reread. Mafalda is one of the most, if not the most, iconic comic strips in Argentine history. Its charm is hard to describe; it mixes both sempiternal childhood tropes with humor that's very specific to the country and the time period.

Zero History (William Gibson, 2015/#42): A reread. The last of the Blue Ant books, and perhaps the weirdest (also, it resolves plot threads you hadn't realized were there).

The Daemon Knows (Harold Bloom, 2015/#43): Another very Harold Bloom book; you'll enjoy it if and only if that's something you enjoy. Every book he publishes lately feels like it's his last one, a summa, and then he writes another one. As an aside, I'm convinced his The American Religion is quite underrated as a sociological observation; IMHO, it's one of the essential books to understand some of the United States' most... idiosyncratic behaviors.

The Science of Cities and Regions (Alan Wilson, 2015/#44): An interesting mixture of very specific example models of urban and regional simulations, and large-scale considerations about different research programs. Short, interesting, full of linear algebra.

Financing of Organized Crime (Center for the Study of Democracy, 2015/#45): An interesting study of, unsurprisingly, the financing of organized crime in the EU done by the CSD, a think-tank based in Bulgaria. Such organizations can sometimes be dicey (not the one I work for, mind you), but as far as I can tell from the text, it's an straightforward and epistemically conservative study. Although the focus is on how certain kinds of organized crime are financed (mainly drug and tobacco traffic, as well as VAT fraud), it necessarily gives also a very informative, for a layperson like me, large-scale picture of the logistics and economics of those crimes. My main takeaway is that absent strong job growth and/or a social safety net, street-level drug retail is pretty much impossible to beat as a last-resort job, with zero costs of entry and livable, although not good, wages, and it's certainly the only one where the mostly unavoidable prison term actually improves your employment situation (and because it makes you almost unemployable in the rest of the economy, works as a sort of lock-in mechanism). A secondary takeaway is that product is so cheap that interdiction is a laughable strategy to stop distribution networks. I haven't run precise numbers but you'd probably have to stop between a half and two thirds of all shipments into a consumer country at the very least before the business ceases to be insanely profitable; the production cost/consumer price margin is so damn huge that, generally speaking, losing cargo is no big deal. Shocker: we've been lied to by the movies (of course, if it's a deliberate loss or if it becomes a pattern, it's quite different, but interdiction risk is considered part of the cost of business, and more than well compensated by profit margins). I thought I knew this in terms of interdictions being useless to stop the industry itself, but I hadn't realized they don't even put much of a dent on individual wholesale operations, much less individual producers and importers.


Books! (Dangerous SF Edition)

Dangerous Visions I (Ed. Harlan Ellison, 2015/#36): A reread. A deservedly classic collection of short sci-fi stories.

Dangerous Visions II (Ed. Harlan Ellison, 2015/#37): Same as above.

Pattern Recognition (William Gibson, 2015/#38): A reread. There are patterns in the Zeitgeist, I think, that Gibson is more in touch with than most other writers. I just read bits and pieces of the (unclassified version of the) United States' Department of Defense's annual report on China's military strategy and forces, and many of the sections use a vocabulary and conceptual framework straight out of Neuromancer. And some anthropologist somewhere has surely written, or is about to write, a paper on "maker culture" lying at the intersection of the nostalgia-slash-guilt of post-industrial affluent people over their imaginary pre-industrial roots, groundless imaginings of an Star Trek/Drexler-inspired non-scarcity economy encouraged as a profitable and politically safe cultural framework, and the partly-reported, partly-created Gibsonian street that finds its own uses for things.

Dangerous Visions III (Ed Harlan Ellison, 2015/#39): Same as above.

Spook Country (William Gibson, 2015/#40): Same as above.


Books! (Empires Edition)

The Ontociders (me, 2015/#31): I'm unarguably the most biased reader imaginable for this book (technically a novella, although I remember it felt like writing a trilogy), but, you know, it's not as bad as I thought it was! There are a lot of small ideas and scenes I had forgotten I put in there — heck, whole subplots — and, even with the dangers of Mary Sueism, I like how the Survivor came out. This isn't to say that there aren't a ton of things wrong with it, and perhaps on the whole it's a failure, but I thought I'd feel embarrassed while reading it, and I actually enjoyed it. (This might be not dissimilar to how all babies and pets are unprecedentedly beautiful and smart to their parents and owners.)

Understanding the British Empire (Ronald Hyam, 2015/#32): A very enjoyable look at the British Empire; not a comprehensive picture, but a look at different facets (including decision-making procedures as recorded in archives, sexuality in colonial settings, and even the historiography itself of the Empire). There are quite interesting arguments here. I laughed early on at an observation that, given the size and population of the Empire, the British kept it for as long as they did out of a combination of a sense of racial superiority and bluffing.

Rome in the East (Warwick Ball, 2015/#33): A fascinating book on Near (and not-so-near) Eastern influences on the Roman Empire; it focuses mostly on architecture (with a lot of detail, as befits a book that was originally about architecture), but it also goes into cultural, politic, and, of course, religious influences (not that those are always separate concerns). I think the broad point that Rome didn't "civilize" an area that had been civilized thousands of years before Rome's foundation, and that Rome acquired many cultural trappings from the East (religion and eventually even geography being but two of them), is undeniable. It paints an almost awe-inspiring picture of the continuity, historical and geographical, of human civilizations, with deep ideas and overt practices both changing and remaining the same for thousands of years.

The Black Hole (Alan Dean Foster, 2015/#34): I hadn't known it was also a movie (which I haven't seen). On its own merit, it's a not unenjoyable science-fiction story in the classic adventure style; not much in terms of subtle psychological dynamics or striking language, but interesting larger-than-life settings. The ending felt weak, though.

Dune (Frank Herbert, 2015/#35): A frequent reread.


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