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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.


Books! (Mostly Politics Edition)

Citizen Emperor (Philip Dwyer, 2015/#26): An interesting biography on Napoleon between his Brumaire coup and his final sendoff to Saint Helena. Its emphasis is on Napoleon's failures, missteps, failures of understanding, and ruthless (and perhaps neurotically driven) self-aggrandizement. It's not the whole story (I think he sells short his tactical innovations and administrative skills), but it's definitely part of any complete picture of the man. An acquaintance (who came from an entire family a bit obsessed with Napoleon due to their own, quite fruitless, political and financial ambitions) once told me that Napoleon had to keep waging wars, as Europe's monarchies would have never let him stay in power. I disagreed then, and after this book I still do; if not loved, he was certainly admired and feared at the beginning, and with some diplomacy and care he might have easily convinced Europe that the Bourbons were a small price to pay to keep Revolutionary France within reasonable bounds (a sort of carrot-and-really-sharp-stick approach). But Napoleon's own insecurities made him seek war and imperial trappings as the only way to legitimize his rule. It's almost tragic in a classical sense: there was a point in which everybody in Europe conceded that his military skill (partly mythologized as it might have been) was justification enough for him to have and keep France... everybody, that is, except himself. More tragic, of course, is that millions died because he kept trying to win the acceptance from kings --- who had been willing to do so out of fear until they were scared enough to fight --- and from the French --- who had loved him until they started to hate him because of the wars he fought to, partially, win their love.

The Lone Samurai (William Scott Wilson, 2015/#27): An almost hagiographical biography of Miyamoto Musashi, including his later media representations. There's plenty of speculation in this book over his activities, relationships, thoughts, and achievements, which is unnecessary, as the man's documented ones are extraordinary enough. That said, the book has lots of information I hadn't known, so it was well worth the read.

Mortal Engines (Stanislaw Lem, 2015/#28): Most of the stories follow the usual (and quite entertaining) pattern of his robot stories, but the last one is quite something else, and subtler than you'd expect given the overall plot.

The Social Order of the Underworld (David Skarbek, 2015/#29): A fascinating and quite convincing account of the formation and survival of prison gangs as, essentially, providers of the governance services that states take care of outside prison. A good thing: the author discusses alternative explanations, and the data behind his conclusions. A bad thing: he goes out of his way to qualify (although not to universally negate) reports of misbehavior by prison officers (reports aren't always reliable, not all guards do it (not all men...), etc). Given the behavior of law officers outside prisons, and the lessened public oversight of their behavior inside them, I think significant levels of officer misbehavior doesn't call for a very strong burden of proof...

The Everlasting Empire (Yuri Pines, 2015/#30): A look at the Chinese Empire as a concept and political institution, exploring the reasons for its unparalleled long-term stability, periodic dynastic changes aside. Some very interesting concepts (I paraphrase into concepts I'm more familiar with): The Son of Heaven as a focal point in the game theoretical sense. The idea that, in a sense, the rightful emperor is whoever unifies China, and, critically, vice versa. Bureaucracies regularly "deactivating" dynasties from the second generation, by raising increasingly passive emperors (less a conscious plan than the obvious implication of their own proclivities, but almost Bene Gesserit in its impact).


Relevant to Doc Savage fans:

Officials forbid inmates from sending mail or calling each other. They can use pay phones, but officials often monitor and record these conversations. Many gang members learn obscure languages to obfuscate their discussions, such as the ancient Aztec language Nahuatl.

(Alright, it's Nahuatl instead of Mayan, but the principle remains.)

Books! (Forces of Nature Edition)

The Indispensable Calvin and Hobbes (Bill Watterson, 2015/#21): A reread.

Genghis Khan and the Mongol War Machine (Chris Peers, 2015/#22): An awfully interesting topic (nearly flawless operational coordination across huge distances, and with no better communication and transport than horses!). Also, a great name for a rock band.

Something under the bed is drooling (Bill Watterson, 2015/#23): A reread.

The Complete Calvin and Hobbes (Bill Watterson, 2015/#24): A reread, including a reread of things I had just read. But I had fun, so Calvin would approve.

Werner Herzog: A Guide for the Perplexed (interviews by Paul Cronin, 2015/#25): Absolutely fascinating. Herzog's movies are lost on me, but the sheer will of the man, his dedication and resourcefulness, are astounding.


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October 2015



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