What I read in 2019

3/24 Alexandrian War (tr. Kurt A. Raaflaub)

Alexandrian War is included in The Landmark Julius Caesar because it has always been considered part of the Corpus Caesarianum, but it was not written by Caesar. Its authorship is unknown, and was unknown even in ancient times. (Suetonius said there were several theories.) Some scholars, both ancient and modern, think that it may have been written by Hirtius, possibly working from Caesar's notes.

Whoever wrote Alexandrian War, it's a continuation of the story that ended so abruptly in Caesar's Civil War. It begins with Caesar in Alexandria, fighting against the forces of king Ptolemy XIII, defeating Ptolemy's army and installing Cleopatra VII as sole ruler of Egypt. (Nominally with her younger brother, Ptolemy XIV, as co-ruler.)

Oddly, the name “Cleopatra” appears only once, in a brief passage. There's no mention of Caesar's personal relationship with her, the famous Nile cruise or their son. Also oddly: despite the name of the book, more than half of it is about other things. There's a long section on what was going on in Spain while Caesar was in the east, and a long section on Caesar's doings in the east after leaving Alexandria: fighting a war against king Pharnaces of Pontus (that's where we get “veni, vidi vici,” although that quote doesn't come from this book), and otherwise settling affairs around Cilicia and Capadocia and Galatia. The book ends with Caesar returning to Rome, presumably with the intention of serving out his term as consul and dictator.

3/21 Donna Leon, Dressed for Death

3/17 Donna Leon, Death in a Strange Country

When Brunetti turned to leave, Vianello asked, ‘What about the deal I make with him? Will we keep our part of it?’
At this, Brunetti turned back and gave Vianello a long look. ‘Of course. If criminals can't believe in an illegal deal with the police, what can they believe in?’

3/14 Gaius Julius Caesar, Civil War (tr. Kurt A. Raaflaub)

Caesar's Civil War seems not to have been published in his lifetime, which is odd. It's the story of the civil war between Caesar and Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (Pompey), beginning immediately after Caesar returned from Gaul, and a major theme of the book is Caesar's justification of his actions, making it clear that the war was the fault of his enemies rather than his own. As he says early on (writing about himself in the third person, as he also does in Gallic War), “it was not because of any desire to cause harm that he had left his province but only to defend himself against the outrages his enemies had inflicted on him; to restore the full dignitas of the tribunes of the plebs, who had been expelled from the state because of their efforts on his behalf; and to win back for himself and for the Roman people the liberty they had lost through the oppression of a few men.” Surely he must have written this book in part as propaganda, to bolster his side in the war.

Ancient and modern scholars seem to think of Civil War as unfinished and only partially edited, and that's certainly what it seems like. The last book is the most exciting part. Caesar's outnumbered army is defeated by Pompey at Dyrrachium but retreats to fight the Battle of Pharsalus in northeastern Greece, in which Pompey's army is decisively defeated and Pompey only barely escapes with a few men; Pompey flees to Asia, then Syria, then Cyprus, then Egypt, hoping to find a place that will take him in while he raises a new army; Caesar pursues Pompey to Alexandria, only to find that he needn't have bothered. The Egyptians decided that a defeated Pompey was a liability rather than a valuable ally, and killed him. Caesar, instead of returning to Rome, gets involved in a civil war between the two co-rulers of Egypt, Ptolemy XIII and Cleopatra VII — and there the book ends, right in the middle of the story: before the war is resolved, before the birth of Caesar and Cleopatra's son, before Caesar returns to Rome. Surely Caesar intended to write more.

Fun fact: the word “Rubicon” does not appear in this book.

3/11 F. C. Yee, The Epic Crush of Genie Lo

YA contemporary fantasy, inspired by Chinese folklore (even more specifically: inspired by Journey to the West) and with a Chinese-American main character, a Silicon Valley high school student. (But a Silicon Valley with fictionalized place names, oddly enough. The main character lives in Santa Firenze, the same town as the Great United amusement park; she mentions the wealthy suburbs Anderton and Edison Park; the good state school across the Bay is unnamed.)

3/5 Dorothy Sayers, Unnatural Death

The murder method in this book doesn't work (L. E. Böttiger, “The murderer's vade mecum,” British Medical Journal 285(6357):1819, 1982), but there are other things to like about it.

3/2 Becky Chambers, Record of a Spaceborn Few

The latest book by one of the FOGcon guests of honor. It's set in the same universe as her previous two books, but it's not a continuation of either book and there are no characters in common. It's mostly about immigration, assimilation, and cultural identity. As readers of the previous two books might guess from the title, and as is confirmed within a few pages, most of this book is set on the Exodus Fleet, the generation ships that left a ruined Earth centuries ago. By the time of this story more than half of humans live somewhere other than the Fleet, but it's still the largest single collection of humans in the Galactic Commons and it's still what most people, including many humans, think of as the source of human culture.

2/27 Gaius Julius Caesar, Gallic War (tr. Kurt A. Raaflaub)

Or strictly speaking I should say that this work was written by Gaius Julius Caesar and Aulus Hirtius. Caesar wrote seven books of the Gallic War, ending with the victory over Vercingetorix, and Hirtius, Caesar's friend and aide, added an eighth book to continue the story through the end of Caesar's governorship of Gaul and up to the events at the beginning of Caesar's Civil War. Caesar certainly intended Gallic War for publication, but it's unknown whether he published each of the seven books as he wrote them, one a year, or whether he published the entire work all at once.

If I'd been properly educated I would have read Commentarii de Bello Gallico years ago. I don't know Latin, alas, so I read it in translation. I read it in The Landmark Julius Caesar, a wonderful edition that's part of the Landmark Ancient Histories series. In addition to Caesar's complete surviving works (including Alexandrian War, African War, and Spanish War, which weren't written by Caesar but are traditionally included with his works), The Landmark Julius Caesar includes a very detailed translator's preface, an introduction to Caesar's life and works, extensive explanatory notes, many maps and figures, and a glossary and who's-who. Then there's another 300 pages of scholarly articles, left out of the printed book because of page count limitations but available as Web Essays. I haven't started on the Web Essays yet, but they look good: “The Gallic War as a Work of Literature” and “The Gallic War as a Work of Propaganda” (even on a cursory reading it's obviously both), “The Economics of War,” “Caesar on Britain,” and much more.

2/17 Agatha Christie, The Clocks

One of the fun things about this book is Christie (via Poirot) telling us about some of her favorite mystery writers.

2/14 Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Searching For The Fleet

I'm now less than a year behind on my Asimov's! I read Rusch's novella “Dix” in the March/April 2018 issue and it reminded me to read this novel, which includes “Dix” as the first part.

2/2 Robert Van Gulik, The Chinese Maze Murders

This is a Judge Dee novel by Robert Van Gulik, not a translation of a Chinese text. (Although Van Gulik says that the structure and most of the plot elements are taken from old Chinese stories.)

Odd fact: according to the foreword this novel was written in English (even though the author's native language was Dutch), but the Japanese and Chinese translations were published earlier than the original English text.

1/27 Jane Gardam, Old Filth

Jane Gardam is a fairly well known contemporary British novelist, but this is the first of her books I've read. I'll have to read more, including the other two books in this trilogy.

Old Filth, the novel, is mostly about “Old Filth” the character, a.k.a. Sir Edward Feathers, an elderly retired barrister and judge, a former “Raj orphan” who spent most of his life abroad and whose nickname comes from that old joke (which his colleagues think maybe he originated), Failed In London Try Hong Kong, but who left Hong Kong for Dorset before the 1997 handover. The book is largely his reflections on his life, returning to events of his childhood that stuck with him many decades later.

1/27 Dorothy Sayers, Clouds of Witness

I like the blind alleys in this book, all of the painstaking work tracking down something that might matter, only to find out that it doesn't.

1/21 Adam Rogers, Proof: The Science of Booze

This book is just what the title says: a popular science book about the science of alcoholic drinks and the history of how we've learned that science, including fermentation, distillation, aging, taste and other forms of sensory perception, and how alcohol affects the human body. That last is the part I knew the least about, and it turns out that I'm not the only one who's ignorant. We don't have a clear idea what happens in the brain when we get drunk (we know much more about many other psychoactive drugs), and we know even less about what causes hangovers. One of the interesting things I learned about in that last section was the work of the psychologist Alan Marlatt, who figured out how to mix a drink that tasted the same whether or not it had alcohol in it, and who divided up his subjects into four groups, rather than the traditional two experimental/control, depending on whether they were given ethanol and whether they were told they'd been given ethanol; the physiological responses of all four groups differed from each other.

There were no cocktail recipes in this book (maybe a few tips on what to notice when you drink single malt Scotch), but it's fun and informative if you're interested in science or booze or both.

1/19 Rust by Example

1/19 Charles Stross, The Labyrinth Index

In which the ever-cheerful Charlie Stross reminds us that it's possible to imagine a fictional world in which British and American politics are even worse than our current reality. Our heroes(?) in the Laundry, the British occult spy agency, have made a deal to ensure the victory of the lesser evil; Britain is now ruled by the Black Pharoah, N'yar Lat-Hotep, one of the nightmarish elder gods. (As the main character says, “The Denizen of Number 10 is the avatar—the humanoid sock-puppet—of an ancient and undying intelligence who regards mere humanity much as we might regard a hive of bees. Our lives are of no individual concern to Him, but He likes honey. As long as we continue to give Him what He wants—honey—He is content to keep us around, and even to tend to us to the extent that it does not inconvenience Him. But the moment anyone thinks to sting the keeper's hand, it will be out with the fly-swatter.” Could be worse.)

Meanwhile on the other side of the Atlantic, there's no such happy arrangement. The President hasn't been seen in a couple months and someone has put the country under a geas of amnesia that blocks anyone from remembering that there has ever been such a thing as a Presidency, and the Laundry's American counterpart, the Operational Phenomenology Agency (unaffectionately nicknamed the Nazgûl), seems to have been taken over by the entities it was created to defend against and is apparently now worshiping and working to reawaken Cthulhu. The main character is directed to investigate and intervene, and, as one would expect in a spy novel, she isn't told everything about what her mission really is.

1/16 James Hilton, Random Harvest

I picked up this book because it was a book I'd never heard of by the author of a well known book, Lost Horizon. I'd never thought about it, but of course Hilton wrote lots of other books.

Was this book inspired in part by The Return of the Soldier, perhaps, or was loss of memory due to shell shock a common conceit by the time it was published? The book begins in 1937, looking back toward the last war and forward toward the next, and we learn the main character's back story: a young lieutenant from a privileged background in Arras in 1917, knocked unconscious by a shell exploding a few yards away, and that's the last thing he remembers until he wakes up on a Liverpool park bench in 1920. He returns to his family and eventually, not entirely voluntarily, becomes a captain of industry and a successful politician, but something is missing. Then later we get the other side of the story: the soldier who can't remember anything before the explosion, not even his name, and who walks out of the asylum in 1918 where he's being treated for shell shock. Eventually the two stories come together, just as Hitler invades Poland.

1/13 Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee (tr. Robert Van Gulik)

Di Renjie (狄仁傑) was a real person, a district magistrate in the first half of his career and later a high imperial official. As a magistrate he would have been responsible for investigating and punishing crimes, but the details of his criminal cases haven't been preserved. He's also a semi-fictional character, one of the famous ancient judges who featured in Chinese detective novels centuries later. Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee is a translation of one of those novels, the anonymously published Di Gong An (狄公案). From today it's distanced several times over: a 1949 translation of an 18th century detective story about a 7th century judge.

Van Gulik later wrote a series of his own detective novels featuring Judge Dee, but this book attempted to be a faithful translation, not an original story — mostly faithful, anyway. There's a translator's postscript where he explained some of his decisions, like which edition of the text he used, and how he handled the standard chapter headings and closings, and how he translated a Chinese pun into an English pun with a similar flavor, and why he chose to translate only the first half of the original text, believing the second half to be a later and inauthentic addition.

1/11 J. R. R. Tolkien, The Return of the King

“Then Treebeard said farewell to each of them in turn, and he bowed three times slowly and with great reverence to Celeborn and Galadriel. ‘It is long, long since we met by stock or by stone, A vanimar, vanimálion nostari!’ he said. ‘It is sad that we should meet only thus at the ending. For the world is changing: I feel it in the water, I feel it in the earth, and I smell it in the air. I do not think we shall meet again.’

And Celeborn said: ‘I do not know, Eldest.’ But Galadriel said: ‘Not in Middle-earth, nor until the lands that lie under the wave are lifted up again. Then in the willow-meads of Tasarinan we may meet in the Spring. Farewell!’”

1/6 J. R. R. Tolkien, The Two Towers

“It was Sam's first view of a battle of Men against Men, and he did not like it much. He was glad that he could not see the dead face. He wondered what the man's name was and where he came from; and if he was really evil of heart, or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from his home; and if he would not really rather have stayed there in peace.”

1/3 J. R. R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.

“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

Matt Austern