What I read in 2007

12/2 Naomi Novik, Empire of Ivory

11/20 Phil and Kaja Foglio, Girl Genius Volume 6: Agatha Heterodyne and the Golden Trilobite

11/19 Charles Stross, Halting State

11/17 Paul Krugman, The Conscience of a Liberal

11/10 Charles Stross, The Merchants' War

11/9 Susan Faludi, The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post-9/11 America

A book about the gender politics of America's cultural response to 9/11. The first part reads like Backlash II: it was about the ways in which terrorism was woven into gender myths and used as an excuse for more anti-feminist backlash.

The second part, “Phylogeny” (as in “ontogeny recapitulates…,” which is bad biology, but a fine organizing principle for a book of cultural studies), asks a more interesting question: what was it about the American character, and the stories we tell ourselves, that made us so vulnerable to becoming deranged in this particular way?

11/4 Robert Sedgewick, Algorithms in C++, Third Edition, Part 5: Graph Algorithms

10/30 Terry Pratchett, The Fifth Elephant

10/27 Kate Ross, Whom The Gods Love

10/26 Gary Taubes, Good Calories, Bad Calories: Challenging the Conventional Wisdom on Diet, Weight Control, and Disease

This book argues that there is very little evidence for the belief that a high-fat diet, and a high-saturated-fat diet in particular, is unhealthy. Rather, there's evidence to suggest that a low-fat, high-carbohydrate diet, and especially a diet that's high on refined carbohydrates, is dangerous.

The second part of that claim was—well, suggestive, but not conclusive. I found the first part persuasive, though. It looks like some ambiguous and and weak studies have been spun into unjustified certainty. It's shocking to see, for example, how thin the scientific basis is for the conventional beliefs about a healthy “Mediterranean diet.”

Mostly, what I took away from this book was that we know a lot less about human nutrition than one would think from the authoritative sounding pronouncements we get. In retrospect I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised. Human bodies are very complicated things, and humans make miserably bad experimental subjects for all sorts of obvious reasons, and doing good long-term nutritional studies is hard even compared to other experiments with human subjects, for lots of equally obvious reasons. And, unfortunately, people have an entirely understandable motive for wanting more certainty than the real science warrants.

10/20 Kate Ross, A Broken Vessel

10/12 Patricia Wrede and Caroline Stevermer, The Grand Tour: Being a Revelation of Matters of High Confidentiality and Greatest Importance, Including Extracts from the Intimate Diary of a Noblewoman and the Sworn Testimony of a Lady of Quality

Sequel to Sorcery and Cecilia. It too was written using the letter game, but it couldn't be an epistolary novel—the cousins are together for most of the book, on a double honeymoon.

10/10 Jonathan Chait, The Big Con: The True Story of How Washington Got Hoodwinked and Hijacked by Crackpot Economics

10/10 Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility

10/2 Karl Schroeder, Lady of Mazes

9/26 Ken MacLeod, The Execution Channel

There are jokes in this book, some dark (the alternate history of the 2000 US election and subsequent events), some otherwise (the ending is sort of an anti-Cydonia), but this is not a happy book. One of the characters, thinking about the tortures ordered by James II and VII:

Tears sprang to her eyes, as they always did when the thought struck her that that particular prerogative was back: the right of the sovereign to condemn, to put to the question, without due process and for reasons of state; that on that sore point all the Revolutions in Britain and America had been for nothing. That America had been for nothing; that dismayed her.

It would be an exaggeration for me to say I know Ken MacLeod, but I spent some time with him at a con a few years back. On one of his panels he said he wasn't planning to visit the US any time soon because “I prefer to stay in the Free World.” The US of this book, which probably takes place in 2020 or so, certainly doesn't seem like a free country, but then, the UK doesn't seem any better. Remind me not to live in a world where the War on Terror goes on for another generation.

9/25 Udi Manber, Introduction to Algorithms: A Creative Approach

One of the classic algorithm textbooks. It's not as comprehensive as CLRS, but it does cover a wide range: basic data structures, sorting and related operations, graphs, geometric problems, a few selected numerical algorithms (including GCD and FFT), NP-completeness, and parallelism. The overall theme of this book is interesting: mathematical induction, not just as a technique for proving theorems, but for designing and understanding algorithms. If I know a partial result, what more do I need to get the full answer?

9/24 Tyler Cowen, Discover Your Inner Economist: Use Incentives to Fall in Love, Survive Your Next Meeting, and Motivate Your Dentist

9/22 N. A. M. Rodger, The Safeguard of the Sea: A Naval History of Britain, 660-1649

The focus of this book is just slightly narrower than the title would suggest. It does indeed cover a thousand years of history, but well over half the page count is devoted to the Tudor era and later, largely for the perfectly sensible reason that that's when we have the best written records. Similarly, while the title of this book says that this is a history of the British Isles as a whole, and while it does have something to say about the Scottish navy and about the role of sea power in Ireland and Wales, it is mostly focused on England. Not at the begining of the book, it's true (England and Scotland didn't exist in the 7th century; the names on the earliest maps in this book are kingdoms like Dalriada, Strathclyde, Mercia, Cornwall, and Bernicia), but once there was such a thing as a unified kingdom of England, say by the 11th century, that's what's at the center of the book. Scotland, Wales, and Ireland certainly play a large role in this book, but they're usually discussed in comparison to England or in the context of English foreign policy.

One of the themes of this book is the importance of institutional structures in support of naval warfare: finance, administration, construction, logistics, victualing (the population of a fleet could easily be larger than a kingdom's largest town), continuity of expertise. Warships are and were expensive high technology, and naval power strained the capabilities of medieval and early modern states.

That fact goes a long way toward explaining the events in the climax of this book, 1588. Philip II's Spain was a far richer and more important country than Elizabeth I's England, but by almost all measures Philip had a weaker fleet. The invasion would probably have gone badly even with the best of plans, and in fact the Spanish plan, designed by Philip himself (partly because the Spanish empire had no administrative structures, other than the “bureaucrat king” himself, for large-scale coordination of activity), was astonishingly bad.

In this part of the book, among others, it's hard not to see echoes of the present: Philip, the foolishly stubborn king who insisted on a foreign adventure that the military experts told him was likely to be disastrous, who insisted on plans that made it even worse than it had to be, and who “did not take kindly to unwelcome advice or disagreeable facts” even as the disaster was unfolding. There's an amazing quote from a Spanish officer:

It is well known that we fight in God's cause. So, when we meet the English, God will surely arrange matters so that we can grapple and board them, either by sending some strange freak of weather or, more likely, just by depriving the English of their wits. If we can come to close quarters, Spanish valour and Spanish steel (and the great masses of soldiers we shall have on board) will make our victory certain. But unless God helps us by a miracle the English, who have faster and handier ships than ours, and many more long-range guns, and who know their advantage just as well as we do, will never close with us at all, but stand aloof and knock us to pieces with their culverins, without our being able to do them any serious hurt. So we are sailing against England in the confident hope of a miracle.

It's impossible to know the exact mixture of sincerity and irony in that quote, but there must be some of each.

9/16 Al Gore, The Assault on Reason

A bit of a grab bag, and a bit hastily written. The overall theme, to the extent that it has one, is that our democracy is ill served by what our mass media have become. The strongest part of the book was its discussion of the Republican tactic of rule by fear.

One thing this book convinced me of is that Gore is never going to run for office again. This book has too many quotes that could be strip-mined for negative ads by anyone doing opposition research.

9/5 Robert Tarjan, Data Structures and Network Algorithms

8/28 Jeremy Siek, Lie-Quan Lee, and Andrew Lumsdaine, The Boost Graph Library

Embarrassing fact of the week: I wrote the blurb on the back cover, but until now I hadn't actually read the book. (The blurb was taken from my review of the book proposal.) Fortunately, nothing that I said was wrong. It's a useful library, and a useful book.

8/17 Mike Mignola and John Byrne, Hellboy: Seed of Destruction

8/16 Steven S. Skiena, The Algorithm Design Manual

Unlike most algorithm books this one doesn't have a detailed analysis of any algorithms, and in many cases it doesn't even describe the algorithms in any detail. The goal is to teach readers how to think about algorithms. It discusses a few general techniques (dynamic programming, divide-and-conquer, backtracking,...), explains what it means for a problem to be NP-complete and how you prove such a thing by reducing one problem to another, and then moves to a catalog of dozens of algorithmic problems. Each problem only gets a couple of pages, so you certainly can't expect depth, but the discussions are useful starting points for understanding what's known.

8/15 Alison Bechdel, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic

My sister and brother in law hadn't heard of this book, so we had to buy them a copy. That inspired me to reread it. Yes, it is as good as I had remembered.

8/10 Charles Kingsley, Westward Ho! Or: The Voyages and Adventures of Sir Amyas Leigh, Knight, of Burrough in the County of Devon, In the Reign of Her Most Glorious Majesty Queen Elizabeth

Victorian adventure fiction. I think it was popular as recently as the early 20th century, but it's now largely forgotten. Largely, alas, for good reason. The venomous anti-Catholicism is hard to take, and so is the fact that the hero is so unlikable. A feminist scholar could probably write an interesting monograph about the way in which this book illustrates the fact that chivalry toward ladies has so little to do with common decency.

7/29 Alexander Stepanov, Sean Parent, and Paul McJones, Elements of Programming (July 13 draft)

7/25 J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

7/22 Pierre Boulle, The Bridge Over the River Kwai (tr. Xan Fielding)

It's not the same without Alec Guinness, alas.

7/21 Charles Stross, Missile Gap

7/20 Terry Pratchett, Monstrous Regiment

7/17 Hal Daumé III, Yet Another Haskell Tutorial

7/16 Bill Buford, Heat: An Amateur's Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-quoting Butcher in Tuscany

It started, I think, as a series of New Yorker profiles of Mario Batali. Those are the parts I'd already read before picking up this book, anyway.

7/3 Robert A. Heinlein, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Astonishing as it seems, the centennial of Heinlein's birth is in less than a week.

7/1 Terry Pratchett, The Wee Free Men

6/29 Murasaki Shikibu, The Tale of Genji (tr. Royall Tyler)

Some of the commentary I've read on The Tale of Genji calls it the first novel ever written. A claim like that depends on exactly how you define “novel,” of course: define it too narrowly and you'll say that the work in question isn't a novel, and define it too broadly and you'll say that there have been earlier works of prose fiction that should be called novels. Some of the characters in The Tale of Genji itself refer to what sure sound like earlier Japanese works of fiction. Still, first or not, it is very old. (And it's one of the earliest examples I've seen of that truism of mystery novels: if a character dies but there's no identifiable body, things may not be as they seem.) People have been writing scholarly commentary on this book for nearly a thousand years.

Most of this book is narrative, straightforward and conversational in style, and it is written so that as a reader I continually wanted to know what happened next. Despite that, I found it hard to read because of how very alien the culture was. I'm sure that I didn't even notice some of the ways in which the culture was alien, but I did notice the intense rank consciousness, the communication through intermediaries, the unfamiliar sexual ethics. (It was clear that polygamy in some sense was accepted for the very highest ranking men, but beyond that I had trouble understanding what was and wasn't normal, what kinds of relationships were and weren't considered marriage, or what kinds of actions were theoretically forbidden but allowed in practice.) At least in the very highest classes, which this book was about, this was an extremely literate society; all of the characters in this book are intimately familiar with the same body of classical literature, and the tiniest scrap of a quotation or near-quotation was understood as an allusion. All of the characters in this book are accomplished musicians, calligrapher, and poets; the men, at least, are all poets in two languages, and sometimes compose impromptu Chinese poetry on set topics as something like a party game. These characters have the very highest titles in government, but it wasn't clear to me whether they actually run the country or whether the purpose of this entire class is aesthetic appreciation.

One of the reasons I found this book hard to read was simply the matter of personal names: there are none. It's not that Heian nobles didn't have names; it's a matter of discretion when talking about them. Characters are referred to with descriptions or titles, e.g. “the Commander,” or “the Second Princess,” or “His Excellency the Minister of the Left,” and, since The Tale of Genji spans several generations (it begins with Genji's birth and ends well after his death), the titles change over time. I found it hard to keep track of which character was which, especially when I had put the book down for a few days.

The lack of names may have something to do with the relative status of the book's narrator and its assumed reader; according to the translator, it's written in the style of a gentlewoman talking to another woman of higher rank, e.g. her mistress. We don't know the name of the main character (“Genji” is a description, not a name), or anyone else of any importance. For that matter, we also don't know the name of the author: “Shikibu” identifies her father's status, and “Murasaki” is something like a nickname, perhaps taken from one of the characters in this book. We know when the author lived, we know what family she came from (a minor branch of the powerful Fujiwara clan), we know a fair amount about her life, we even have her diary, but we don't know her name.

I found The Tale of Genji hard to read, and I'm sure there's a lot of the artistry that I missed, but I'm still glad I read it. It's given me at least some insight into a way of life very different from my own.

6/13 Sarah Caudwell, Thus Was Adonis Murdered

Our trip to Venice was less eventful, fortunately.

6/11 Philip K. Dick, Ubik

5/29 Ellen Kushner, Swordspoint

We now have three copies of this book. The latest copy is the new edition, which includes three short stories set in the same world, “Red-Cloak,” “The Death of the Duke,” and “The Swordsman Whose Name Was Not Death.”

5/27 John Scalzi, The Last Colony

5/24 Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential

5/15 John Scalzi, The Ghost Brigades

It's a strange coincidence that I read this right after reading Blindsight: one of the important throwaway ideas in The Ghost Brigades (not quite an oxymoron) happens to be the same as the central question in Blindsight. I don't think the two authors were in the same writing group or anything like that. Maybe it's just one of the ideas that's in the air this year.

5/9 Peter Watts, Blindsight

One of the nominees for the 2007 Hugo.

Several people have said that Blindsight is very well written and very depressing. I'll go along with the former part. I would have found it depressing if I had believed what the main character ends up believing, but even in the context of the book, let alone in the real world, there's no reason to accept his point of view. He's obviously a damaged person in several ways, obviously an unreliable narrator, and especially unreliable when it comes to the issues that the book ends up being about.

One of the central issues of science fiction, and one that's only rarely done well, is John Campbell's challenge to “Write me a creature that thinks as well as a man, or better than a man, but not like a man.” Blindsight actually has three different answers to that question: the aliens, the vampire Sarasti, and the main character—someone who was severely brain damaged as a boy, who had to reinvent something resembling empathy using game theory and algorithms instead of ordinary emotions, who describes himself as a Chinese Room.

4/29 Colson Whitehead, The Intuitionist

What an odd book! The central conceit, a conflict between two philosophies of elevator inspection—complete with rival technical journals—is ludicrous, and deliberately so. But the book isn't a comedy; it's a perfectly serious novel, mostly about technology and race, set in a midcentury New York that's only slightly different, and only slightly more mad, than the real one.

4/23 Graham Hutton, Programming in Haskell

I was disappointed by this book. It's a perfectly fine book, just not the one I was hoping for. I was hoping for a deeper discussion of how one uses Haskell for real programming: what the module system is good for, when you should define a monad, how you should handle awkward issues like concurrency and sockets, how to reason about performance in the presence of lazy evaluation, how to use non-node data structures like arrays. But no, it's an introductory book for students who haven't ever seen functional programming before. If that's what you're looking for, it's quite a reasonable choice.

I think that means the book I'm looking for doesn't exist. There's probably no way for me to learn what I want than to than to go ahead and write a Web server or something in Haskell.

4/21 Jimmy Carter, Palestine Peace Not Apartheid

Most of the reviews of this book have focused on a single word. That's unfortunate, and Carter should probably have known better than to use it. Right or wrong, it's a distraction. Carter uses the word “apartheid” a handful of times, and says what he means by it, and what he thinks it applies to, in literally one or two paragraphs late in the book. It's a very minor part of his argument, and could have been omitted with no loss.

I didn't learn all that much from this book, but I did learn a little. The most valuable thing in it, for me, was a pair of maps: a map of what borders in the West Bank would have looked like in the stillborn Clinton/Barak/Arafat Camp David plan, as interpreted by the Israelis and by the Palestinians. It's a tremendous indictment of the press that, for all the words and all the heated opinions about those failed negotiations and the rejected offer, it's been very hard to find maps showing exactly what the offer is said to have been. It's also important to see that there was enough wiggle room in this agreement-that-wasn't so that it was possible to draw two such different maps to describe the same words. Looking at these maps, it's easy to see why some people thought Clinton's proposal was less generous than others.

4/14 John Hodgman, The Areas of My Expertise

4/13 Phil and Kaja Foglio, Girl Genius Book Five: Agatha Heterodyne and the Clockwork Princess

4/12 Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone

Yes, it's true: the Bush Administration is always worse than you thought it was, even when you take this into account.

I can't say that this book made me think better of the press, though. Rajiv Chandrasekaran is a reporter for the Washington Post. He covered Iraq from the fall of Baghdad through the end of the CPA and what was billed as the transfer of sovereignty. He was obviously a good reporter, and his book illustrates the blundering, the detachment from reality, the political squabbles, the insane elevation of ideology over competence, of the viceregency in the Green Zone. But almost everything in this book happened years ago, before 2004. Why didn't we learn it in real time? Why did I read it in a book, instead of the pages of the Post itself? Does Chandrasekaran, or his editors, think that this isn't the sort of thing that you write newspapers stories about?

My other pet peeve: Chandrasekaran says that he left the Green Zone and traveled to other parts of Baghdad, and he reports conversations with Iraqi friends. Does he speak Arabic, or do all of his Iraqi friends speak English, or did he bring a translator along? In a book that deals so much with cultural isolation, and misunderstanding, this is really something that ought to be made explicit.

4/10 Alison Bechdel, New, Improved! Dykes To Watch Out For

Either the third or the second Dykes To Watch Out For collection, depending on how you count: it didn't really start becoming a strip about a collection of continuing characters until More Dykes To Watch Out For. Early, anyway. The characters look so young! Astonishing to realize that Bechdel has been drawing this strip for more than 20 years, and that I've been reading it for probably something like 15.

4/6 Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita

3/31 Justine Larbalestier, Magic's Child

3/30 Paul R. Halmos, Naive Set Theory

“Naïve” in the sense that most of the proofs are somewhat informal, with the details left as exercises, and in that this is not an exploration of the different possible axioms of set theory and the consequences of those choices, but an exposition of ZFC or something like it. It does present a complete set of axioms for set theory. The book covers the Axiom of Choice, Zorn's Lemma, the Well Ordering Theorem, and on up through cardinal and ordinal numbers and transfinite arithmetic. I found it tricky. The author's point of view, from the preface (possibly tongue in cheek at least in part, possibly not): “General set theory is pretty trivial stuff really, but if you want to be a mathematician, you need some, and here it is; read it, absorb it, and forget it.”

3/14 Justine Larbalestier, Magic Lessons

3/3 Charlie Stross, The Jennifer Morgue

One part H.P. Lovecraft, one part Bond, one part Slashdot, and a dash of Discworld. Serve shaken, not stirred, with a garnish of tentacles.

2/28 Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point

2/26 Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism

An analysis of nationalism, partly in terms of its evolution alongside mass media and capitalism (the author introduces the terms “print language” and “print capitalism”) but even more in terms of colonialism.

2/16 Lisa Goldstein, Dark Cities Underground

2/12 Charles Stross, Glasshouse

This book starts off as something I hadn't thought possible, a sequal to a novel about the Singularity. Well, not exactly a sequel: there are no characters in common between Glasshouse and Accelerando, and only vague references to the whole historical period, but it's definitely a novel set in a time long after what the characters in this book call the Acceleration.

Then something happens, and the book turns into something I hadn't expected. The bulk of it is set in a social experiment, a far future society's attempt to recreate a demented version of mid 20th century gender roles. The deliberate construction of those roles, and of the social pressures that maintain them, is uncomfortably reminiscent of the Stanford Prison Experiment. These parts of the book, even more than the flashbacks of war atrocities, are quite horrifying. James Nicoll once wrote that he read Jane Austen as horror fiction because of the fate of women in that society, and this book shows the sense in which the present and recent past can be seen as horror.

I don't know if Charlie was thinking of the Tiptree Award when he wrote this book, but he was certainly thinking of Tiptree herself. One of the minor characters is named Alice, and at one point it's mentioned offhand that her last name is Sheldon.

2/6 Kate Ross, Cut to the Quick

A Regency murder mystery, with a little touch of A Civil Contract.

2/3 Edward Tufte, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information (second edition)

1/27 Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49

No hollowed skein of stars can ward, I trow,
Who's once been set his tryst with Trystero.

1/16 Ellen Kushner, The Privilege of the Sword

Not exactly a sequel to Swordspoint but another story set in the same world, two or three decades later, with some of the same characters.

Matt Austern