What I read in 2019

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 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, things are going less well: the President hasn't been seen in a couple months and the US is under a geas of amnesia that blocks anyone from remembering the existence of the 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.

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.

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