What I read in 2020

2/17 Margery Allingham, The Crime at Black Dudley

One of the classic British mysteries from the 1920s. I'd never read it before, or anything else of Allingham's.

2/17 Philipp Blom, The Vertigo Years: Europe, 1900–1914

It's a commonplace that the years before 1914 were the last 14 years of the “long 19th century,” but of course that's not what it seemed like to the people who lived then. It was a time of dynamism, when it seemed that everything was unlike the past. The cover illustration is Jacques Lartigue's photo of car number 6 from the 1912 Grand Prix auto race, and the first chapter is about the 1900 Paris Exposition Universelle with its Palace of Electricity and its Hall of Electrical Machines. The point of The Vertigo Years is to see the early 20th century on its own terms, rather than seeing it in light of the war that ended the age.

Which of course is a lot like the point of Barbara Tuchman's classic The Proud Tower, but there's very little overlap between the two books. One reason is that Blom writes about different things: the early feminist movement, homosexuality and homophobia (Oscar Wilde and the Marquess of Queensberry in England, the Eulenburg affair in Germany), the Russo-Japanese War and the Revolution of 1905, the new scientific version of racism and the new mystical version, the genocidal atrocities in the Belgian Congo. An even bigger difference is one of method: Blom seems to be primarily an intellectual historian, so this book leans heavily on artists and intellectuals. The only artist who looms large in Tuchman's book is Richard Strauss (whom Tuchman didn't seem to respect very much), but Blom begins his book by quoting from “The Dynamo and the Virgin” in The Education of Henry Adams, and we hear from or about Strauss, Mahler, Stravinsky, Kokoschka, Picasso, both Mann brothers, Musil, Freud, Steiner, Blavatsky, Nietzsche, Kafka, Kandinsky, Woolf, Strachey, Pirandello, Marinetti, and more.

I noticed a few careless mistakes, unfortunately. The discussion of special relativity, and the way in which it differed from Galilean relativity, was muddled, using a too-cute example of someone jumping off the Leaning Tower of Pisa. (Neither Galilean relativity nor Einsteinian special relativity is about invariance of the laws of nature in accelerating reference frames.) The account of Rutherford's famous gold foil experiment was exactly backward, suggesting that Rutherford was astonished that most of the α particles passed through the foil. (In fact Rutherford was astonished that a tiny fraction were deflected by 180°. In Rutherford's words, “It was almost as incredible as if you fired a 15-inch shell at a piece of tissue paper and it came back and hit you.” Blom writes that the Sherlock Holmes stories “were serialized by the Strand Magazine from 1887 to 1915,” which is at best incomplete: Doyle was still publishing Sherlock Holmes stories up through 1927.

2/13 Iain M. Banks, Surface Detail

One of the last Culture novels, and the one that focuses most on simulations, on the difference between a virtual world and the Real. Is the seeming Real itself a simulation? That speculation is brought up as a possibility, but not a very interesting one; the interesting questions about simulations in this book are ethical ones.

Also lots of references to the events of previous Culture books, including Excession, Look to Windward, and Use of Weapons. I'm sorry there will never be more stories about one of the more colorful characters to appear in this book.

2/9 Iain (M.) Banks, Transition

In the UK Transition was published as Iain Banks, and in the US it was published as Iain M. Banks. Which maybe makes sense. There are no galaxy-spanning adventures, no spaceships and aliens; it's not very like Banks's typical science fiction. On the other hand it is a book about people who flit their consciousness across alternate universes, which seems pretty clearly science fiction by my standards. Or there's an alternate reading in which none of this really happens and it's all the fantasies of an institutionalized patient: “Apparently I am what is known as an Unreliable Narrator,” the book begins, and there do seem to be gaps and inconsistencies. But that's a pretty strained reading, and not a very interesting one.

2/2 Jacqueline Winspear, Among the Mad

2/1 William Shakespeare, The Second Part of Henry the Sixth, with the Death of the Good Duke Humphrey

Continuing the story from Henry VI's marriage to Margaret of Anjou (1445) up through the Yorkist victory at the Battle of St. Albans (1455). As the title promises, this play does include the murder of Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester. Also the violent deaths of several other dukes, and many people of lesser rank. The stage directions call for three different severed heads.

1/26 Anthony Cheetham, The Wars of the Roses (ed. Antonia Fraser)

A very short introduction, with lots of beautiful color pictures, covering the reigns of Henry IV, Henry V, Henry VI, Edward IV, Henry VI, Edward IV, Edward V, and Richard III. This book is from the University of California Press's Royal History of England series, and its text is taken from the single-volume The Lives of the Kings & Queens of England.

The scope of this book is that of Shakespeare's history plays from Richard II through Richard III, and to some extent the book mirrors Shakespeare's point of view that the roots of the instability from 1399–1485 came from Henry Bolingbroke destabilizing the politics of royal succession by usurping the throne. The story of the Wars of the Roses itself, though, isn't so different from the previous book I read: England was stable enough until the 1440s, including the time when Henry VI was a child king, until Henry lost both popular and elite support because of his incompetence.

And yes, it's safe to assume that Richard III did order the deaths of the princes in the Tower. He wasn't the first 15th century English king to kill a predecessor whose throne he seized, or even the second.

1/25 Jacqueline Winspear, An Incomplete Revenge

1/24 Adrian Tchaikovsky, Children of Ruin

Humans and Portiid spiders have been living together on Kern's World for three generations at the start of Children of Ruin (along with another intelligent species, an underwater stomatopod civilization). Communication is still imperfect and largely computer mediated, though, partly because primate and arachnid minds work differently and partly because neither species has the sensory apparatus to perceive the other's speech without technological aid. Communication across difficult barriers is largely what this book is about: Children of Time ends with an epilogue about the launch of an interstellar expedition from Kern's World in response to the detection of radio signals from something that probably isn't either human or spider, and the first chapter of Children of Ruin gives a pretty big hint about one of the things the explorers will find after they emerge from their decades of cold sleep. I appreciated how alien the octopus way of thought seemed, both to the reader and to the human and spider characters, and conversely how hard it was for the octopuses to understand their visitors. And then there are things even more alien…

I was amused to notice that “Adrian Tchaikovsky” is sort of a pen name: the author's name is actually spelled Czajkowski. Presumably he thought that most English-speaking readers wouldn't know how to pronounce it.

1/20 William Shakespeare, The First Part of Henry the Sixth

  • ’Tis much when scepters are in children's hands,
  • But more when envy breeds unkind division:
  • There comes the ruin; there begins confusion.
  • That's the Duke of Exeter near the beginning of Act 4, and it's a reasonable summary of the play. It takes place during the minority of Henry VI and it's about the origin of the Wars of the Roses: Henry comes to the throne as a child, the power vacuum leads to faction and intrigue, Richard Plantagenet (later Duke of York) and the Duke of Somerset take white and red roses as symbols of their factions while meanwhile the Duke of Gloucester and the Bishop of Winchester come close to battle, and with all the internal turmoil England loses the Hundred Years' War. Joan of Arc, a.k.a. Joan La Pucelle, makes an appearance.

    Not historically accurate as far as I understand the history, but it's a good story.

    1/15 Adrian Tchaikovsky, Children of Time

    Children of Time got a lot of attention a few years ago, but I didn't get around to reading it until just now. It's worth reading. I wouldn't exactly call it space opera, but it is science fiction on the grand scale: starships, terraforming, uplift, AIs, the rise and fall of civilizations, a span of thousands of years. Most of the characters are spiders.

    A lot of far-future stories are implicitly post-apocalyptic, but that's usually in the background and in the distant past. Here the needless destruction is much more foregrounded, and we keep seeing echoes and smaller scale versions of the initial catastrophe. Some of the characters notice too. A question that keeps recurring: is it possible for humanity to do better?

    1/11 Jacqueline Winspear, Messenger of Truth

    The fourth Maisie Dobbs novel. The title comes from the epigraph, from Paul Nash (1889–1946). The man whose death Maisie is hired to investigate was, like Nash, a well known war artist who served on the Western Front with the Artists Rifles.

    This book takes place in 1930. Nick Bassington-Hope and all of the other major characters are fictional, but Sir Oswald Mosley (boo, hiss) makes an appearance. Some of the people in the book see him for what he is.

    1/7 John Gillingham, The Wars of the Roses: Peace and Conflict in 15th Century England

    I read this book because we're going to see the Henry VI trilogy this summer and I realized that I knew next to nothing about the Wars of the Roses. I doubt if the author wrote this book for ignorant Americans like me, but I found it an excellent introduction. The bulk of the book is a straightforward narrative history from 1422, the beginning of Henry VI's reign, to 1485, the death of Richard III. I learned a lot from it, including basic things like the role of Warwick “Kingmaker,” or that the Wars of the Roses had nothing to do with the fact that Henry VI came to the throne as a child (they started long after that), or the fact that Edward IV reigned peacefully for 12 years and died of natural causes and that the violence only restarted after Richard III's power grab.

    Straightforward narrative history, but with a point of view: the Wars of the Roses weren't a bloodbath, and didn't (despite what one would think from Shakespeare) represent any deep divisions or structural problems or legacies from Henry IV's time. The author argues, convincingly, that the problems don't go back any farther than the 1440s and that all of the wars can be traced to the personal failings of three flawed individuals: Henry VI, the Earl of Warwick, and Richard III. The author argues that, as best as one can interpret the fragmentary evidence, England between 1422 and 1485 was largely peaceful. Towns weren't fortified. There were rebellions and battles, yes, but they were fought in the field by small forces and they ended quickly; unlike the wars of continental Europe at the time, this wasn't the grim business of siege and starvation and battering cities into submission and devastating whole provinces.

    The first three chapters are more general, and deal with the always important question: what do we know, and how do we know it? We have very little reliable information about any of the important battles: we have chronicles written long after the fact, very occasionally we have pay records, we have local oral tradition of dubious reliability. We don't have good information about how many soldiers fought in any of the battles: some of the chronicles have numbers, but they're obviously very wrong. There was a lot of writing and printing in the 15th century but a lot of it was ephemera, the vast majority of which has not survived. So a big part of the first three chapters is background: what would be a plausible size for a 15th century army (answer: small), what would the logistics of provisioning look like, how would an army have been raised and paid, how would a battle have been fought given the military technology of the time.

    1/4 Iain M. Banks, Matter

    The first time I read this it was one of my least favorite Culture books, but I liked it better rereading it. Also reminds me that I ought to reread Don Quixote, since one of the characters seems pretty clearly inspired by Sancho Panza.

    Matt Austern