What I read in 2018

4/23 Martha Wells, All Systems Red

The first “Murderbot Diaries” story. Lots of fun.

4/21 Hew Strachan, The First World War

This may be my new favorite WWI overview. It's a single-volume history and relatively short, and it's also recent. It was originally published 90 years after the start of the War; I read a reissue, with a new introduction, to mark the hundredth anniversary. Part of the challenge of any such history is just how many words have been written, how many interpretations have solidified over the decades — both from memoirs written by important participants days or months or years after the fact, and from well known works like Good-Bye to All That and Im Westen nichts Neues and The Guns of August. This book questions a lot of the standard interpretations and tries to look at the events in the context of the time. I got new insights even about well known events like the Schlieffen Plan, the British evacuation of Gallipoli, and Falkenhayn's goals in Verdun.

4/10 Jim Blandy & Jason Orendorff, Programming Rust: Fast, Safe Systems Development

This time I read the first edition of the book, released December 2017; when I read it before I read a pre-release 0th edition. This is a lot more complete, including some real examples, a fair amount about the standard library, some discussion of idiomatic concurrency patterns, and a chapter about how and why to use the unsafe escape hatch. I have the impression that you'll almost always need to use unsafe to implement nontrivial data structures in Rust, and that you basically shouldn't be afraid of it any more than you should be afraid of using placement new in C++.

It was also interesting to see something that wasn't in this book but that was in the pre-release version: monadic error handling with Result's map and and_then and or_else methods. The pre-release version made a big deal of that style of error handling; this version omits them entirely, concentrating on the ? operator. I assume this reflects a change of opinion within the Rust community about what constitutes good style. It's interesting to see that such a change of opinion could happen in less than a year. I take this as yet another sign that good error handling is still an unsolved problem. Whatever language you're using, and regardless of whether you're using exceptions or explicit return codes or something else, it's still awkward and we're still experimenting.

4/8 Ann Leckie, Provenance

It's set in the same world as the Ancillary Justice trilogy, but it's not part of the same story. It's not set in Radchaai space. Some characters talk about the Radch and about some of the events of Ancillary Mercy, but that's largely background; for the most part the characters and societies of this book have their own concerns. (Including, as the title suggests, concerns about authenticity and origins and chains of ownership.)

Gender and pronouns in this book are different both from the way the Radchaai do things and from the way we do things.

4/3 Scott Westerfeld, Extras

The fourth book of the Uglies trilogy, featuring a new set of characters and a title that turns out to have more than one meaning.

4/1 Scott Westerfeld, Specials

The third book of the Uglies trilogy.

3/29 David Liss, A Conspiracy of Paper

A mystery novel set in 1719 London and revolving around the South Sea Company. (The year is significant: 1720 is when the bubble burst.)

3/22 Scott Westerfeld, Pretties

It's funny reading a book where the big villains are a group called Special Circumstances. I imagine Scott has read just as much Banks as I have, and that the name was at least partly his little joke or easter egg.

3/24 Becky Chambers, A Closed and Common Orbit

Sort of a sequel to The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, but it focuses on different characters and it isn't really a continuation of the story. That book was essentially about what counts as a family, and this one is about what counts as a person.

3/22 Scott Westerfeld, Uglies

Alice was assigned this as part of her dystopian literature unit in middle school.

3/17 Ada Palmer, The Will to Battle

The third book in the Terra Ignota series. Like the first two, it's complicated, dazzling, weird, frustrating. It's very much a novel of ideas, and I think pretty much every reader will have the reaction of wanting to argue with it. (Probably different readers will want to argue with different parts.)

The title and the epigraph come from Thomas Hobbes, and when I say the book is a novel of ideas one of the things I mean is that it's a novel about Enlightenment philosophy. This book makes the unreliability of its unreliable narrator a little more explicit than the first two, but it has a similarly complicated attitude toward time. There are four distinct eras at play in this book: the 21st century, when it was written, the 25th century, when it takes place, some far future era when the narrator thinks of it as being read, addressing an imagined reader (who sometimes responds!), and the past era that the narrator thinks is relevant for understanding the transformation of their society, the 17th and 18th centuries.

3/11 Rebecca Solnit, The Mother of All Questions

A collection of feminist essays, including the well known “Men Explain Lolita to Me.”

3/8 Iain M. Banks, Excession

What happens when the Culture encounters an Outside Context Problem.

3/2 Becky Chambers, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet

Not deep, but fun.

2/19 Ursula K. Le Guin, The Other Wind

The most obvious thing about Tehanu is that it's a reexamination of gender, but male and female isn't the only duality that's highlighted in the more recent Earthsea books: there's also human and dragon, Kargad and Archipelagan, the living and the dead.

In one of Le Guin's essays, from before she wrote Tehanu, she said, roughly, that A Wizard of Earthsea was about coming of age, The Tombs of Atuan was about marriage, and The Farthest Shore was about death, and that The Farthest Shore was the weakest of the three because it was about something she hadn't experienced. Maybe that's why the three more recent Earthsea books, the ones written after such a long pause, kept coming back to The Farthest Shore, why we see such a different view of the dry country and the wall of stones.

2/17 Agatha Christie, Endless Night

2/17 Ursula K. Le Guin, Tales from Earthsea

The way Le Guin wrote about her own writing reminds me of the way mathematicians talk about their work: in terms of discovery, rather than invention. “I also wanted information on various things that had happened back then, before Ged and Tenar were born. A good deal about Earthsea, about wizards, about Roke Island, about dragons, had begun to puzzle me. In order to understand current events, I needed to do some historical research, to spend some time in the Archives of the Archipelago.”

Tales from Earthsea is a collection of short fiction. It includes discoveries about origins, about chronology, about gender, about the dangers of the arts of the Summoner, and, in the final story, “Dragonfly,” about what happens after the end of Tehanu.

2/10 Helaine Olen and Harold Pollack, The Index Card: Why Personal Finance Doesn't Have to Be Complicated

Back in 2013, when he was interviewing Helaine Olen about her book on personal finance, Pollack made an offhand comment that “The best [financial] advice fits on a 3x5 index card and is available for free at the library.” Naturally he was challenged to produce that card. Here was his initial take, which he posted on his blog:

This book is an expansion of that card. The authors have revised the initial advice a little (they no longer wholeheartedly recommend VTIVX and the like, for example, and they include advice about mortgages and insurance), but the basic premise is still the same: you don't need to know much more than what fits on an index card. And yes, the book includes a tear-out copy of the updated card on the last page. Most of the book is an explanation of why each of the ten simple rules matters.

It's an important point! Managing your money ought to be boring, and I agree with the authors that one of the main reasons it seems complicated is that there are a lot of people with a vested interest in making it seem complicated. Spending too much time on trying to figure out the perfect time to buy and sell exactly the right stock, or learning how to implement fancy option strategies, is much more likely to hurt than to help.

2/10 Ursula K. Le Guin, Tehanu

Tehanu was published in 1990, almost 20 years after the previous Earthsea book. There are no contradictions with the first three books of the series, with what I thought of as the Earthsea Trilogy when I was growing up, but it looks at the characters and their world from a different perspective: it exists very specifically because Le Guin's perspective changed over the course of that 20 years, and she wanted to question the assumptions her younger self made. (Most notably about gender. Why was wizardry so relentlessly male? Why were there almost no named female characters?) This is only the second time I've read Tehanu. I didn't like it much the first time I read it, but I liked it better upon rereading.

The subtitle is “The Last Book of Earthsea,” but it wasn't.

2/6 Ursula K. Le Guin, The Farthest Shore

“It is hard for a dragon to speak plainly. They do not have plain minds. And even when one of them would speak the truth to a man, which is seldom, he does not know how truth looks to a man.”

2/3 Shawn Wallace and Matt Richardson, Getting Started with Raspberry Pi

2/3 Harold Simmons, An Introduction to Category Theory

“There is a lot going on in adjunctions, and you will probably get confused more than once. You might get things mixed up, forget which way an arrow is supposed to go, not be able to spell contafurious, and so on. Don't worry. I've been at it for over 40 years and I still can't remember some of the details.”

2/2 Ursula K. Le Guin, Catwings

I'm sure cats would like to have wings if they could.

2/1 Ursula K. Le Guin, A The Tombs of Atuan

An interestingly ambiguous ending, even independent of Tehanu.

1/29 Ursula K. Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea

  • Only in silence the word,
  • only in dark the light,
  • only in dying life:
  • bright the hawk's flight
  • on the empty sky.
  • 1/28 Hesiod (tr. Richard Lattimore)

    A translation of the three surviving works attributed to Hesiod: the Works and Days, the Theogony, and the Shield of Herakles. Whether these poems are all really by Hesiod is of course questionable (and was questioned even by ancient scholars), as is whether there ever was such as person as “Hesiod” or whether the name should be taken to refer to a particular oral tradition rather than a single individual.

    The ancients thought of Hesiod and Homer as roughly contemporaneous. I'd never read Hesiod before and hadn't known what to expect. I was surprised to find that Works and Days and Theogony weren't epics: Works and Days is explicitly didactic, addressed specifically to Hesiod's brother, and Theogony is more catalog than narrative. The Shield of Herakles is much like the shield of Achilles from Book 18 of the Iliad, only more so. There was almost certainly some borrowing in at least one direction.

    1/20 Richard Morgan, Market Forces

    Near-future science fiction where the violence of neocolonial financial dominance is more direct and more literal than it is today. It's just as grim and violent as you'd expect if you've read the author's earlier books.

    1/14 Amor Towles, Rules of Civility

    Towles's second novel, A Gentleman in Moscow, got a lot of attention. Rules of Civility, his first novel, came out a few years ago. Most of it takes place in New York in 1938, but with a prologue in 1966. We learn in the prologue that the main character is eventually prosperous and successful, that she eventually marries someone named Val, that someone named Tinker Grey was once important to her and that he somehow fell on hard times; then we spend most of the book waiting to understand those things. A lot of what makes the book interesting is how we gradually (or in a few cases suddenly) realize how misleading most of the characters' deliberately constructed personae are.

    1/8 Iain Banks, Whit

    The main character is Isis Whit, or, in full, The Blessed Very Reverend Gaia-Marie Isis Saraswati Minerva Mirza Whit of Luskentyre, Beloved Elect of God, III. She's the granddaughter and heir of Salvador Whit (whose full name is even more impressive), the founder of the tiny and austere True Church of Luskentyre. She's 19 at the start of the book and has spent her whole life in her Order's Community in rural Scotland. Now there's a family problem that requires her to go on a mission out into the world of the unsaved, to Edinburgh and London and beyond.

    It was an interesting choice for a committed atheist like Banks to write a book told from the point of view of someone for whom her faith is everything. I think he went out of his way to make up a religion that he could respect in some ways, even if he couldn't take it as seriously as his character does.

    1/6 Julia Annas, Plato: A Very Short Introduction

    I took a class on Plato as a undergrad, which was a while ago. This was a good refresher.

    1/5 John le Carré, The Looking Glass War

    This book comes with a forward, written by le Carré in 1991. The Looking Glass War was published in 1965, immediately after The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, and it was written as an even less romantic and (from le Carré's point of view) more realistic view of the spy world: one where the issue isn't so much betrayal and moral ambiguity, but incompetence, muddle, petty bureaucratic battles, characters fighting (and failing) to convince themselves that what they do matters.

    1/2 Donna Leon, Death at La Fenice

    The conductor in this book is fictional, as is the manner of and reason for his death, but I imagine we're supposed to be reminded of Herbert von Karajan.

    Matt Austern