What I read in 2018

10/14 Agatha Christie, They Do It with Mirrors

10/14 Scott Anderson, Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East

It's more about Lawrence of Arabia than anyone else, as the title suggests, but it's written with four viewpoint characters: T. E. Lawrence, the junior intelligence officer and Oxford scholar and amateur archaeologist who received his lieutenant's commission (and later a promotion to captain, then major, then colonel) without a single day of military training; William Yale, a Standard Oil operative (and later a State Department representative, after the US entered the War); Aaron Aaronsohn, an agronomist and Ottoman subject, originally from Romania, who founded the Jewish Agricultural Experiment Station near Haifa and who later created a British spy ring; and Curt Prüfer, a German scholar and diplomat and spy, later a military advisor to the Ottoman government. (And still later, in another war, Nazi Germany's ambassador to Brazil.) It was a small world. Lawrence and Yale first met in the desert in January 1914; one of Prüfer's lovers and agents was a woman named Minna Weizmann, and one of Aaronsohn's colleagues and rivals in the Zionist movement was Minna's brother Chaim. Lawrence is the most famous and most cinematic of the four, but not the only one whose life was a near-unbelievable story.

One of the things I got from this book was that the Sykes-Picot agreement, and the Anglo-French betrayal of the Arabs more generally, was even more sordid than I had realized. In this, as in many other things, Wilson was singularly unhelpful. Things didn't have to turn out as badly as they did.

10/13 Alison Bechdel, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic

The TheatreWorks production of the musical is really good. Janet and I saw it last week, and we're going again tonight with Alice. Naturally I wanted to reread the original book, which is structurally complicated and literary in a way the musical isn't. Wonderful example of adaptation, of how different media have different strengths.

10/7 Martha Wells, Exit Strategy

The fourth and last Murderbot novella. I liked all of them a lot, mainly because of the main character, who is sympathetic, sarcastic, comprehensible, a good person (although it takes a while for it to start thinking of itself as a person, and even longer to think of itself as good), but doesn't think like a human. The humans and augmented humans who know what it is eventually realize that it isn't human and doesn't want to be.

I'm looking forward to the upcoming novel.

10/5 Rebecca West, The Return of the Soldier

I'm sure this wasn't the first novel to feature shell shock and psychiatric treatment but it must have been one of the early ones: written and set in 1916, published in 1918.

It's not really a War novel: it's set in a country home in England, not in “that No Man's Land where bullets fall like rain on the rotting faces of the dead.” It's a book about the early 20th century English class system, about memory and the passage of time, about the tension between truth and happiness, about the relationships between the titular soldier and the three women (one of them the main character and narrator) who love him in very different ways. It couldn't have been set in any other time and place, though; the presence of the War, and the fact that the main character can imagine it and knows images from it even without having seen it herself, is crucial.

10/2 Agatha Christie, Towards Zero

10/1 Lara Elena Donnelly, Amberlough

Not what I expected. I thought it was going to be a nice wholesome spy thriller set in a fictional country. And so it is, at first, until the election, or maybe a cross between an election and a coup, where somehow the unthinkable happens and the candidate who seemed like a nightmarish bad joke ends up in power. The main character's choices become much darker, and the world of the spy seems much less glamorous, and the blackboots are closing in… One realizes that the sexual freedom and cheerful decadence of Amberlough City is reminiscent of early 1930s Berlin, and that the Bumble Bee, the theater where so many of the characters work and play, bears more than a passing resemblance to the Kit Kat Klub from Cabaret.

9/26 John Buchan, Mr Standfast

The third Richard Hannay novel, sequel to The Thirty-Nine Steps and Greenmantle. It was published in 1919 (was it written before or after the end of the War, I wonder?) and begins in 1917, shortly before the Battle of Messines. Richard Hannay is now a general serving in the trenches of the Western Front, but he's called away from his brigade (and later, after his promotion, from his division!) to hunt a dangerous German spy ring, spies who were secretly responsible for the Bolshevik revolution, and the French Army mutiny after the failed Nivelle Offensive, and the Italian defeat in the Battle of Caporetto, and who are now plotting to wreck the Allied armies before the upcoming Ludendorff Offensive. Yes, there's another desperate flight across Scotland pursued by the police.

I initially thought that this book would be about defeating the treasonous English peace movement, but no. The peace movement is treated with a lot more respect than I had expected. Some of the pacifists and socialists and advanced modern artists are portrayed as ridiculous or deluded or worse, but by no means all. At least one of the pacifists, who never repents of his refusal to fight, is portrayed unambiguously as a hero.

This book also reminds me that I've never gotten around to reading The Pilgrim's Progress. I ought to.

9/24 Agatha Christie, Sad Cypress

9/23 James Stokesbury, A Short History of World War I

A short history (one volume, 350 pages), but thorough and insightful. The author was a Canadian history professor, so this book has just a little more emphasis on the Canadian experience of the War than most of the other books I've read.

I enjoyed the tone, which is often caustic and often funny in a dry sort of way. Here's a description of Allied response to the German attack in the second battle of Ypres: “General Foch, who was commanding the Northern Army Group, ordered an immediate counterattack. The French did nothing; they were still trying to collect their broken divisions. Smith-Dorrien, implying that Foch's orders were nonsense, which they were, proposed instead to retire back to a line just in front of the Ypres. Sir John French was so angered by this sensible suggestion that he immediately sacked Smith-Dorrien and replaced him with Sir Herbert Plumer—who then retired to a line just in front of Ypres.”

9/17 Douglas Hofstadter, Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid

Back when I was in high school Gödel, Escher, Bach was one of my three favorite books. (Along with War and Peace and, um, I forget what the third was.) I read it several times, and it had a huge influence on the way I thought. I'm sure this book is where I first encountered Gödel's incompleteness theorem, and the halting problem, and Zen kōans, and renormalization (I didn't understand it at the time; I still don't, but at least now I know enough quantum field theory to know why I'm confused), and analysis of fugal technique, and an attempt to understand the mind starting from neurons. Possibly it's even where I learned about the Turing test, and the Epimenides paradox, and Zeno's paradox. I took from GEB the idea that it's important to distinguish between multiple levels of explanation (or, if you like, that holism and reductionism are in tension but not in conflict), that interesting things happen when levels mix, that self-reference is subtle and important and worth thinking hard about.

I hadn't read Gödel, Escher, Bach recently. I was reminded of it partly from reading Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality and partly from reading The Gold Bug Variations. My basic reaction: parts of it seem dated, and not just the parts referring to computer technology of the 1970s, but by and large it holds up pretty well. Nerdy high school students should still read it.

One of the parts that seemed most dated to me is Hofstadter's assumptions about artificial intelligence. I share his assumption that AI is possible in principle, that there's no reason a machine made of silicon can't be a person. (The arguments to the contrary have always seemed to me like special pleading, and even the sophisticated ones are in the same category as Zeno's paradox or the Ontological Argument: anyone can see they're wrong, even if formulating exactly how they're wrong can be interesting and productive.) But Hofstadter makes a further assumption, which I don't think he quite stated explicitly: that developing AI would go hand in hand with understanding and explaining how our own minds work, and that it would mean explicitly implementing the sorts of semantic networks that he was sure we had in our heads. It probably seemed obvious to him, and it seemed obvious to me when I first read GEB, but it doesn't seem so obvious to me now, and I don't think today's AI researchers are so certain of it either.

We now know that it's possible to write a program that plays superhuman chess but that's still just a program, not a person (Hofstader guessed that would be impossible), and that probably plays chess differently than the best human players do. And of course machine learning has made astonishing progress in recent years in other areas too, including machine translation, which Hofstadter correctly identifies as a very hard problem — but again, it's made that progress by throwing enormous amounts of data and lots of floating-point calculations at the problem, not by embedding semantic networks or self-referential symbols. There are no symbols or semantics in sight, just bfloat16 matrices. We don't have a good way of explaining how a deep learning network makes a particular decision or what it's thinking about, and it's entirely possible that we'll be able to create a machine that passes the Turing test without ever getting such an explanation. It hardly seems like progress toward understanding human thought. Except… maybe it is. All of Hofstadter's speculation about how the human mind must work, with the implicit question of what else could it be: well, we've got an example now of what else it could be. Maybe Hofstadter's symbols and Chomsky's deep structures just aren't there, and what's in our heads is more like deep learning and statistical generalization, and there is no satisfactory unifying explanation to be found.

9/10 Phil & Kaja Foglio, Girl Genius: The City of Lightning

Alice is right: the best scene is indeed when Bangladesh DePree and Princess Zeetha, Daughter of Chump, are having tea and cake.

“Uh… Do you know who I am?”
“Captain Bangladesh DuPree — exiled pirate queen. You kill stuff for the Empire. — And you're pretty good at it, too. Cream?”
“Ooh! Yes, please! Ha — ‘Pretty good?’ Do you even know how much stuff I've killed?”
“Hey, I don't even keep track of how much I've killed.”
“Oh, sure. Numbers, right?”
“Yeah, tell me about it.

9/8 Kaja & Phil Foglio, Girl Genius: The Beast of the Rails

*sigh* Frau Doctor, I have personally meddled with inexplicable scientific anomalies before…”

9/2 Agatha Christie, Lord Edgware Dies

Poirot missed an important psychological clue that he should have picked up on even before the murder.

9/1 Frances Hardinge, Cuckoo Song

An 11 year old girl, on holiday in the country in 1923, wakes up after a near-fatal accident. It's immediately clear to her and the reader that something isn't right; the things that aren't right build up, in an impressively creepy way, and it also becomes clear very quickly that at least some of them can only be supernatural. The year is also no accident; this book is partly a fairy story and partly a story about the aftermaths of the War.

8/31 Nnedi Okorafor, “Binti: The Night Masquerade”

Third book in the trilogy that began with “Binti.”

8/30 Agatha Christie, Why Didn't They Ask Evans?

8/29 Hilary Mantel, Bring Up the Bodies

Wolf Hall tells the story of the rise of Anne Boleyn, and Bring Up the Bodies, the sequel (the middle book in a planned trilogy, apparently), tells about her fall. In both books the main character is Thomas Cromwell.

Bring Up the Bodies is told in the third person, but it's a third person tighly focused on Cromwell. He seems more elusive in this book than in Wolf Hall; it's harder to understand why he did what he did, especially in the crucial few weeks when he gradually and almost imperceptibly shifts from trying to arrange an annulment of Henry and Anne's marriage to working toward her execution for adultery and treason. Is it ambition? Fear of the Boleyn clan? A desire to carry out Henry's wishes faithfully no matter how incoherent those wishes are? A sincere belief that he has found evidence of Anne's guilt? Concern about preserving the stability of the realm? Some kind of complicated Machiavellian religious machination? Revenge? Sometimes it seems to be one of those, sometime another, sometimes a contradictory combination of them.

8/25 Jeremy Whitley and Emily Martin, Princeless: Book 2 — Get Over Yourself

8/25 Chris Hastings (writer), Danilo Beyruth (artist), Tamra Bonvillain (color artist), Travis Lanham (letterer), The Unbelievable Gwenpool: Volume 1: Believe It

Marvel's worst role model.

8/25 Dorothy Sayers, In the Teeth of the Evidence

Short stories: some Lord Peter, some Montague Egg, some one-off.

8/21 Dorothy Sayers, Have His Carcase

A request to friends and family: if I'm ever found with my throat cut under mysterious circumstances and the police are trying to establish the time of death, make sure the medical examiner has read this book.

8/18 Martha Wells, Rogue Protocol

The third book of the wonderful Hugo-winning Murderbot series.

“After trying and rejecting a few newly downloaded shows, I started on a first espisode that looked promising. It took place in an alt-world with magic and improbable talking weapons. (Improbable because I was a talking weapon and I knew how people felt about me.)”

8/14 Agatha Christie, Mrs. McGinty's Dead

8/12 Iain M. Banks, Inversions

The very first page of the book, a note on the text written by the fictional editor who compiled it, writes that half of it is “the Story of the Woman Vosill, a Royal Physician during the Reign of King Quience, and who may, or may not, have been from the distant Archipelago of Drezen but who was, without Argument, from a different Culture.” A few pages from the end, the last we hear from a character is “a note declining the invitation, citing an indisposition due to special circumstances.”

The narrators of the two stories attach no particular significance to the words in those quotes that will be familiar to readers of Banks's other science fiction novels. The most obvious inversion of this novel is that the point of view characters are the ones visited by Contact; the people telling the story don't know what the story is.

8/10 Dorothy Sayers, Strong Poison

“It was natural that the conversation should turn to the subject of murder. Nothing goes so well with a hot fire and buttered crumpets as a wet day without and a good dose of comfortable horrors within. The heavier the lashing of the rain and the ghastlier the details, the better the flavour seems to be. On the present occasion, all the ingredients of an enjoyable party were present in full force.”

8/8 Wilkie Collins, The Woman in White

One of the earliest mystery novels, published in 1860. (Originally published as a serial, in a magazine founded by Charles Dickens, starting the previous year.) It's not exactly a detective novel and not exactly a thriller, certainly not in the modern sense; those genres evolved later, and the pacing in this novel is much more Victorian than modern.

I read this once before, I think, but remembered very little about it. I did remember Count Fosco, though; he's a wonderful villain.

8/5 Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall

A novel set in the time of Henry VIII, and mostly about the politics centered around Henry's court around the time of his divorce from Catherine of Aragon and his marriage to Anne Boleyn. Most of the characters are people you'll read about in history books. The main character is Thomas Cromwell, whom I (like most Americans, I suspect) had previously encountered mainly as the villain in “A Man for All Seasons.” He comes across as a very different and much more interesting character in this book, and More comes across as a remarkably unpleasant person.

8/4 Jeremy Whitley and M. Goodwin, Princeless Volume 1: Save Yourself

7/28 P. G. Wodehouse, My Man Jeeves

Short stories, not all about Jeeves and Bertie.

7/27 Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

All three of us were reading this book at the same time! Sort of a small family book club.

7/25 Georgette Heyer, These Old Shades

Not a Regency romance. A romance, yes, but set a couple generations earlier, in the age of Louis XV and George II.

7/23 James Joyce, Dubliners

What better short story collection to read when one is in Dublin?

7/22 Dorothy Sayers, Lord Peter Views the Body

A short story collection, including a crossword puzzle.

7/19 P. G. Wodehouse, Right Ho, Jeeves

P. G. Wodehouse isn't best known for his writings about nuclear physics, but here's what Bertie Wooster was reminded of by Gussie Fink-Nottle's drunken grammar school prize presentation, in a book published in 1922.

“It was a dashed tricky thing, of course, to have to decide on the spur of the moment. I was reading in the paper the other day about those birds who are trying to split the atom, the nub being that they haven't the foggiest as to what will happen if they do. It may be all right. On the other hand, it may not be all right. And pretty silly a chap would feel, no doubt, if, having split the atom, he suddenly found the house going up in smoke and himself torn limb from limb.”

7/17 Philip Pullman, The Book of Dust: Vol 1: La Belle Sauvage

Prequel to His Dark Materials: the adventures of baby Lyra. Well, not exactly her adventures (she's a baby), but the adventures surrounding her. I liked the first half of this book, but started liking it a lot less in the second half. It felt padded, especially the interminable boat voyage.

7/14 John Carreyrou, Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup

The Theranos story, written by the reporter who exposed what was going on. It has relevance beyond Theranos, of course. The epilogue suggests that the moral of the story is that Silicon Valley's loose ways have no place in the world of health care, but I take a different moral from it. The question I ask is: why was it possible for this to go on so long? Why were people, including journalists, so credulous?

I note three things, in particular. First: people like Holmes were successfully able to hack the the mechanism of American journalism. Reporters, despite their skeptical self-image, basically tend to take people at their word. They don't have good tools for coping with people who lie about everything, people whose basic factual statements can't be taken at face value. Second: reporters don't cultivate subject matter expertise and don't value it. The people who wrote stories about Theranos didn't know the basics of blood testing or chemical engineering. They didn't know which technical problems were easy and which were difficult, and they didn't know what questions to ask. They thought the main skill they brought to the table was the ability to assess sources' character, and they were wrong about that. Third: the American legal system doesn't guarantee free speech. Not really, not when powerful people are involved. Dozens of people, maybe hundreds, knew what was going on, but none of that made it into print for years: suppressing speech turns out to be easy.

7/12 Jane Austen, Emma

Janet and I were both reminded of Emma when we read In Other Lands, so I figured I ought to reread it. The protagonist is very interestingly flawed.

7/8 Mark Levinson, The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger

Does a history of shipping containers sound interesting to you? In the preface, the author said that none of people he talked to while writing it thought so. I'll say the same thing about this book that I've heard from a lot of other people, though: if you're at all interested in technology, or economics, or what globalization means, you should read this book. It's a fascinating story.

Shipping containers in the modern sense started in the mid 1950s. They took off in a big way in the 1960s, accelerated as the Vietnam War escalated, and by the 1980s they had changed almost everything about manufacturing and trade: consolidation into a smaller number of enormous ports, a huge reduction in the number of dockside jobs and the end of traditional dockside culture (and this goes far beyond longshoremen), drastically cheaper shipping costs, which for the first time made global supply chains and just-in-time manufacturing possible at scale. And of course it's not just the container itself, but all of the infrastructure around it: deepwater ports with good connections to road and rail, high-speed cranes, manufacturers who ship when they're able to fill a container, ships and rail cars and truck cabs designed for containers, regulatory changes that allow shipping to be charged as a flat container rate rather than per commodity and for shippers to sign long term contracts. (Both of those things were illegal in the US until the early 1980s, and today's world, where hybrid sea/rail shipping is routine, where a cargo from Yokohama to New York might be unloaded from a ship in Long Beach, didn't take off until the laws were changed.)

The chapter I found most entertaining was the one on ISO standardization. Parts of it seemed uncomfortably familiar.

7/7 Yoon Ha Lee, Revenant Gun

The last book of the Machineries of Empire trilogy. All three are well worth reading, space opera like nothing I've seen before. I read somewhere that they were inspired in part by Korean legend, but I don't know enough to say whether that's true.

7/4 Fiona Staples and Brian K. Vaughan, Saga Volume 7

7/4 Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang, Paper Girls 3

7/4 Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda, Monstress, vol. 2: The Blood

One of the 2018 Hugo nominees for Best Graphic Story.

7/4 Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda, Monstress, vol. 1: Awakening

7/4 Martha Wells, Artificial Condition

The continuing adventures of Murderbot.

7/3 Sam J. Miller, The Art of Starving

7/2 T. Kingfisher, Summer in Orcus

“It occurs to me,” said the weasel, going back to mussing around in her hair, “that you are laboring under the impression that I am some sort of magical familiar. I'm not. I'm really a very ordinary weasel—although quite good-looking, of course—and not magical at all.”
Summer sighed. “You talk though.”
“All weasels talk,” said the weasel. “Most humans are just bad at listening.”

7/1 Saladin Ahmed and Christian Ward, Black Bolt: vol. 1: Hard Time

6/29 The Rustonomicon

It's billed as a book about how to use unsafe Rust. That's important, since it doesn't seem to be possible to write data structures in the safe subset of Rust (not even simple ones like doubly-linked lists or dynamic-size arrays), and unsafe Rust is only lightly covered in most tutorials.

As a side effect, this book actually covers something even more interesting: a precise description of some important parts of the safe subset of Rust, in particular the ownership model. I finally have a reasonably clear idea of why let mut x = (1, 2); let x1 = &mut x.0; let x2 = &x.1; works, and why let mut v = vec!(1, 2); let v1: &i32 = &mut v[0]; let v2 = &v[1]; doesn't. (The latter is nontrivial, and requires understanding lifetimes.)

6/29 JY Yang, The Black Tides of Heaven

More twins, and more gender fluidity: children are default non-binary until they choose a gender. The practitioners of magic are called Tensors, but whether they're covariant or contravariant isn't specified.

6/27 Sarah Gailey, River of Teeth

The book begins with an author's foreward explaining that “In the early twentieth century, the Congress of our great nation debated a glorious plan to resolve a meat shortage in America. The idea was this: import hippos and raise them in Louisiana's bayous. The hippos would eat the ruinously invasive hyacinth; the American people would eat the hippos; everyone would go home happy. Well, except the hippos. They'd go home eaten.” And no, she didn't make it up: the hippo ranching idea was real, and you can read more about it in Jon Mooallem's “American Hippopotamus” article.

It didn't happen, probably because it was a really terrible idea. This novella is a story of what might have been: what might have been if hippo ranching had taken off in the mid 19th century. It's a kind of Wild West story, but with hoppers instead of cowboys. Also a lot more gender fluidity than in your average Wild West story.

6/24 Sarah Rees Brennan, In Other Lands

One of this year's Hugo nominees for best YA novel. It's a coming of age story, and a portal fantasy, and a romantic comedy. Which means it's obvious to the reader (and many of the other characters) who the main character will end up with, long before he realizes it himself.

It's also a bit of a nerd wish fulfillment: the main character is intelligent, socially awkward and a bit oblivious, obnoxious both intentionally and unintentionally, and unremarkable for looks, and lots of beautiful and powerful and accomplished people are throwing themselves at him. Perhaps that's part of the joke.

6/22 Nnedi Okorafor, “Binti: Home”

Sequel to “Binti.” It feels very much like the middle book in a trilogy.

6/20 Seanan McGuire, Down Among the Sticks and Bones

Apparently in some sense it's a companion to Every Heart a Doorway, which I haven't read.

6/17 Sarah Pinsker, “And Then There Were (N-One)

One of this year's Hugo nominees for Best Novella. The main character's name is Sarah Pinsker, and so are almost all of the other characters: it takes place at SarahCon, a gathering at an alternate-reality resort for hundreds of her from parallel worlds. And yes, the title's echo of Christie is intentional.

6/17 Nnedi Okorafor, “Binti”

6/17 Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro, Bitch Planet: Book 2: President Bitch

The most recent Bitch Planet collection, collecting issues 6–10. It's a little heavy-handed and absurd, but so is reality.

6/17 Emil Ferris, My Favorite Thing is Monsters, vol. 1

One of this year's Hugo finalists for Best Graphic Story. It starts out as a mystery and a growing up story: a 10 year old girl, growing up in Chicago in the late 1960s, trying to understand the death of a neighbor. It gradually becomes more intense. The book is done as her diary, drawn in a spiral notebook. The art is striking, done in a variety of styles to reflect how the narrator sees herself and the world around her, and immensely detailed; there were several pages that took a long time for me to read, or that I went back to to see if I had missed something.

Highly recommended, but note that it's only half a book. I didn't notice that until I finished it; I ended up being very confused, because it didn't seem like anything was fully resolved. I thought maybe there was a big revelation at the end (which could mean one of two things depending on how you interpret a comma), and the author was leaving it up to the reader to figure out how it answered all the other questions, and I just wasn't smart enough to put everything together. But no, it's more straightforward than that. The publisher split the book in two, since even volume 1 is pretty huge. The other half is coming out this summer.

6/16 Nnedi Okorafor, Akata Warrior

A YA fantasy novel set in Nigeria, and one of the finalists for this year's Hugo. I thought it was a lot of fun, partly becuase magic inspired by Nigerian rather than European folk traditions seemed fresh.

The main character and her friends would have had a much easier time if they'd told their teachers and mentors what was going on, and as far as I can tell they had no good reason not to. I blame J. K. Rowling: the characters have all read Harry Potter, so they probably thought that kids going off and having magical adventures on their own and saving the world without talking to anyone is just what they're supposed to do.

6/12 Kim Stanley Robinson, New York 2140

I liked the conceit of this novel better than the execution. The idea that New York will be transformed rather than abandoned after climate change causes sea levels to rise by tens of feet, that New York will become SuperVenice: both plausible and cool. I liked the setting, and the city as character. Neither the characters nor the story grabbed me, though, and I kept getting annoyed by the fact that in most ways other than the built environment the world didn't feel like the future. I don't believe that gender roles in the mid 22nd century will look exactly like they do today; maybe they'll be better, maybe they'll be worse, but I'm sure they'll be different. I don't believe the people in the mid 22nd century will remember 2008 as the paradigmatic example of a financial bubble, or that they'll have opinions about the relative merit of Bernanke, Volcker, and Greenspan. (Quick: are you still angry about the way the US government handled the Panic of 1893? Can you name three Treasury secretaries from the 1880s?) I don't believe that the artists and writers who are remembered will be people like Pynchon, Ligeti, Calvino, Heinlein, Marquis, and Shostakovich, and nobody more recent.

The politics also rubbed me the wrong way, which is slightly weird since I basically agree with most of Robinson's substantive policy preferences. I think the basic problem was that there wasn't a single character who disagreed with the author's politics for an articulable reason. It was as if the only thing keeping the country from enacting policies that everyone recognized as self-evidently good was a handful of greedy bankers and the cowardly politicians who failed to stand up to the bankers. I just don't buy that; the world isn't that simple. There are people who genuinely disagree with each other, sometimes for bad reasons, sometimes for good; evil bankers are real, but they're only a small part of what's going on. It's impossible to make political progress if you fail to accurately identify either your enemies or your allies.

6/9 Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro, Bitch Planet: Book 1: Extraordinary Machine

6/5 Nnedi Okorafor, Akata Witch

6/4 William Shakespeare, Love's Labour's Lost

No twins and no cross-dressing, but at least there are some mistaken identities, some misdirected messages, and some dirty jokes.

6/3 William Shakespeare, The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet

Friar Lawrence is way too fond of overly complicated plans.

6/2 Elizabeth Speller, The First of July

The first of July 1916, to be specific: the first day of the Battle of the Somme. (Although we first meet the four main characters three years earlier, on July 1 1913, going about their very separate peacetime lives.) It should be unsurprising that not all of the characters live to see July 2.

5/28 Richard Powers, The Gold Bug Variations

Bach, molecular biology, COBOL, Poe, library science, and art history. Also a couple of love stories. I listened to the 1955 Gould recording more than once while reading this book.

5/20 Dorothy Sayers, The Nine Tailors

The book didn't help: I still find bell-ringing mystifying.

5/19 John Scalzi, “The Dispatcher”

5/19 Lois Bujold, “The Flowers of Vashnoi”

The latest Vorkosigan novella. (Ekaterina Vorkosigan, that is.)

5/13 Baruch Fischhoff & John Kadvany, Risk: A Very Short Introduction

A book about decision-making in the face of uncertainty — the descriptive question of how decisions are actually made, and the prescriptive question of how they should be made. (The latter of which is contested. It's not at all clear that the Von Neumann-Morgenstern axioms are the only form of decisionmaking that deserves to be called rational.

5/10 George O'Connor, Artemis: Wild Goddess of the Hunt

5/10 Iain Banks, A Song of Stone

It's pretty unrelenting in its nastiness: terrible people caught up in a war that neither they nor the reader understand, doing terrible things to each other. The time is unspecified and the country unnamed; it's dreamlike, or nightmarelike, in its lack of context. Not my favorite Banks, but interesting for its narrative voice.

5/7 George O'Connor, Apollo: The Brilliant One

Book 8 in the Olympians series of graphic novels. This one is narrated by the nine muses.

5/5 The Odyssey (tr. Emily Wilson)

This translation got a lot of attention when it was published, much of focused on the fact that Wilson is the first woman to have translated the Odyssey into English, and on a few of Wilson's decisions as translator: the very first line, where “polutropos” is rendered as “complicated”, and a little more emphasis than usual on Penelope's agency, and calling attention to sexual violence when it appears in the text, and using the English word “slave” instead of euphemisms that can obscure the fact that all the places we see are slave-owning societies and nobody sees anything remarkable about it.

Other important virtues of this translation that have gotten less attention: it's written in clear and understandable 21st century English (obscurity or archaism doesn't make English any closer to classical Greek), it's the same length as the original, it's written in natural-sounding iambic pentameter that scans well, and it has a detailed and good introduction discussing things like textual history, variant texts and readings, and the complicated question of authorship. I'm looking forward to Wilson's Iliad!

Wilson has written a lot about some of her decisions as a translator (how she translates the standard epithet “dios Odysseus,” what to make of the Greek word “heros,” what “eupatereios” might mean in reference to Helen, and so on), both in the introduction and the footnotes and in articles and interviews like this one at tor.com. They're interesting and worth seeking out.

4/29 The Infinity Gauntlet

A compilation of Infinity Gauntlet #1–6 from 1991.

4/27 Andrew Tobias, The Only Investment Guide You'll Even Need

The 2016 edition. Similar but not identical to previous editions.

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, 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