What I read in 2020

11/19 Richard Rothstein, The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America

A detailed history of 20th century housing segregation. If you live in any major American metropolitan area, you'll probably learn something about your city. I learned about all of the places where I've lived, including Pittsburgh, the Boston area, and several parts of the Bay Area. My own house in Palo Alto happens to be in a development that never had restrictive racial covenants, but plenty of other developments in Palo Alto did. The bitter joke (which I'm pretty sure is also the literal truth) is that Palo Alto has more Teslas than black people, and it turns out that that wasn't an accident.

The Color of Law often comes back to a decision by Supreme Court judge John Roberts, who wrote that government action against segregation wasn't necessary because segregation wasn't created by governments. In a sense the whole book is an extended argument that Roberts got his facts wrong: segregation wasn't merely de facto, wasn't merely the product of individual private bigotry, but was de jure government policy for the better part of a century. It's a complicated but persuasive argument. From legally segregated government housing projects, to government sponsored home loans that only went to developers who built segregated housing, to implicitly and sometimes explicitly segregationist zoning policies, to court-enforced restrictive covenants, to segregation enforced by arson and murder with the complicity of the local police, it's hard to argue in good faith that segregation was a purely private matter.

11/11 Sebastian Faulks, Birdsong

The book begins in 1910 in Amiens, on the banks of the river Somme. We're introduced to the bourgeois Azaire family and to the young Englishman, Stephen Wraysford, who came to Amiens to learn about cloth production in M. Azaire's factory and soon finds other reasons to stay. Part two is set six years later, in much the same part of the country. Wraysford revisits Amiens, and places like Albert and Auchonvillers where he had once gone on day trips, in very different circumstances. Part three switches to London in 1978 as we meet Elizabeth Benson, an Englishwoman who vaguely knows that her late grandmother was French and her late grandfather fought in the War, but who realizes on the 60th anniversary of the Armistice that she knows very little about either. From then on it switches between Stephen's story and Elizabeth's. It's effective partly because it shows the legacy of the War stretching to the present day, and partly because of the contrast between the horrors that Stephen has come to accept as normal, and Elizabeth who sees nothing normal about them — most memorably her reaction to the overwhelming scale of the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme.

Some of the book is set not so much in France as under France. It takes place in a part of the War that I hadn't thought much about before: the underground war of miners and counter-miners, fought in tunnels. Horrifying in a completely different way than the trenches and shells and machine guns.

11/7 Tamsyn Muir, Harrow the Ninth

Alice just read Harrow the Ninth, so I figured I ought to reread it too. It's just as fun the second time around; also less confusing, but it's still hard to understand what the ending means and who's still alive. Perhaps there are some hints I missed, but I'm sure it's also deliberately ambiguous.

10/29 Megan Whalen Turner, Return of the Thief

The last book of the Queen's Thief series, published 24 years after the first. As many readers speculated, the narrator is the young Erondites — an adult by the time he's writing this story, possibly an old man, referring to events that happened years ago and that have already been written about by other (less reliable!) historians.

Much of this book is a war story. There's a scene in it that's very clearly inspired by Act IV of Henry V, the night before the Battle of Agincourt.

10/26 Megan Whalen Turner, Thick as Thieves

Yet another viewpoint character! It's told in the first person by Kamet, slave to the former Mede ambassador Nahuseresh. Most of it takes place in the Mede empire, not in Attolia or Sounis or anywhere else in the Little Peninsula. The Greater Powers of the Continent turn out to be very convenient.

There are extensive quotes from a fictional ancient work that seems pretty obviously inspired by the Epic of Gilgamesh. Reminds me that I've still never gotten around to reading it.

10/25 Megan Whalen Turner, A Conspiracy of Kings

The prologue introduces us to the kings: Sounis, formerly the missing heir who had been mentioned in The King of Attolia and now a disguised refugee trying to regain his throne, and Attolis. Sounis is the main character of this book, and tells most of it in first person. It takes a little longer to understand who he's telling the story to, and what the conspiracy is.

10/24 Megan Whalen Turner, The King of Attolia

The most important character of this book is Gen, just like in the previous two books, but the viewpoint character for most of the book is new: Costis, a squad leader of the Attolian Guard. There are no real surprises in this book from the reader's point of view, but there are for Costis and a number of the other characters.

10/23 Megan Whalen Turner, The Queen of Attolia

“Before you make a decision,” he said, “I want you to know that I love you.”

The second Queen's Thief book has political intrigue, espionage, gods meddling in the affairs of humans, and, most memorably, a very strange romance.

10/19 Megan Whalen Turner, The Thief

I'm beginning my reread of the first five Queen's Thief novels in preparation for reading the sixth and last, Return of the Thief, which was just published. This is the first time I've reread The Thief, so this time I was looking for all the hints about the plot twist. Yep, they're definitely there.

10/17 Susanna Clarke, Piranesi

Very different from Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell! Also very good.

The narrator, who is called Piranesi although that's not his name, lives in the House, which may also be the World: seemingly endless Halls and Vestibules and Staircases and Passages, with Tiers and Niches and Statues.

I am determined to explore as much of the World as I can in my lifetime. To this end I have traveled as far as the Nine-Hundred-and-Sixtieth Hall to the West, the Eight-Hundred-and-Ninetieth Hall to the North and the Seven-Hundred-and-Sixty-Eighth Hall to the South. I have climbed up to the Upper Halls where Clouds move in slow procession and Statues appear suddenly out of the Mists. I have explored the Drowned Halls where the Dark Waters are carpeted with water lilies. I have seen the Derelict Halls of the East where Ceilings, Floors — sometimes even Walls! — have collapsed and the dimness is split by shafts of gray Light.
In all these places I have stood in Doorways and looked ahead. I have never seen any indication that the World was coming to an End, but only the regular progression of Halls and Passageways into the Far Distance.

He is sure that since the World began there have been at least 15 people, of whom at least two are still alive: himself and the Other.

The setting initially reminded me of Borges's Library of Babel, probably intentionally. But one also notices pretty quickly the hints of something else: the comparisons the main character makes, the assumed background knowledge that doesn't fit. It becomes clear that he's remembering other things without knowing it and that he isn't exactly an unreliable narrator, but that he's not reliable in exactly the way he thinks he is.

I'll have to reread it, partly because it's written beautifully and partly because it will be interesting to see everything unfold knowing what comes later. At 245 pages, rereading it will be less of a commitment than rereading Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell.

10/13 Katherine Anne Porter, Pale Horse, Pale Rider: Three Short Novels

A collection of three novellas, “Old Mortality,” “Noon Wine,” and “Pale Horse, Pale Rider.” They were originally published in 1937–8, and first published as a collection in 1939. I incorrectly expected this book to be three linked novellas forming some kind of larger whole. No, they're three novellas, period. My favorite was probably the first, but I liked all three.

The third novella, “Pale Horse, Pale Rider,” is a story of the War and the pandemic. I picked it up because I saw it mentioned in an article pointing out how strange it was that the devastating Spanish Flu pandemic left so little trace in culture, how hard it is to find any well known works of literature where it's even mentioned. “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” is one of the few exceptions.

10/6 Megan O'Keefe, Chaos Vector

Sequel to Velocity Weapon, in which we learn more about the various factions and conspiracies and ancient secrets and what some of them have to do with each other.

I don't see any evidence that the author is a programmer (the bio at the end of the book says she does journalism and arts management and graphic design), but surely it's not a coincidence that one of the minor characters is named Conway and another is named Knuth.

10/1 Fritz Leiber, Swords Against Death

The second collection of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories. It includes one of my favorites, “Thieves' House,” and it introduces our heroes' mentors/employers/masters/patrons, Sheelba of the Eyeless Face and Ningauble of the Seven Eyes.

9/30 Elena Ferrante, The Story of a New Name (tr. Ann Goldstein)

Book two of the Neapolitan Novels. The new name is presumably that of Raffaella Cerullo (Lila), who gets married toward the end of My Brilliant Friend. This book, like the first, is mostly about the relationship between the narrator, Elena Greco, and her lifelong friend Lila.

My Brilliant Friend begins when the elderly Elena, now living in Pisa, learns from Lila's adult son that Lila has vanished from Naples without a trace. From then we go back to Elena's and Lila's childhood and adolescence, and the framing story is mostly dropped. The Story of a New Name also begins with something that happens after most of the events in the book, but in this case the interplay between present and past is more explicit.

9/26 Greg Rucka (writer) and Leandro Fernández (artist), The Old Guard: Book 1: Opening Fire

The first of two graphic novels. I read it now for the obvious reason: I just saw the movie that was based on it. After reading the comic, I'm impressed at what a faithful adaptation the movie was.

9/26 Alex Stepanov and Paul McJones, Elements of Programming

I read several iterations of the manuscript before this book was published; this is the first time I've actually read the published version from beginning to end. One could describe it as a book about generic programming, or as a book about the foundations of programming, or a book about the connections between mathematics and programming, or a book about the same sorts of ideas that inspired the STL. All of those descriptions are potentially misleading, depending on what those terms mean to you.

Elements of Programming is based on the generic programming classes that Alex taught at SGI and the later Foundations of Programming classes that he taught at Adobe, with a very different style than those classes or his lectures. The book is terse and formal, organized as definitions and axioms and lemmas, with very little about applications or historical development. The title is a deliberate reference to Euclid. It starts with basic definitional issues—abstract species and entities and their representations as types and values, equational reasoning in terms of regular functions and types. The mathematics is ordinary abstract algebra: monoids, rings, modules, and so on. The mathematical definition and the exposition of the algorithms go together: Euclidean semirings go along with the GCD algorithm, for example.

The book uses a small subset of C++ (or not quite a subset, depending on how one feels about the macros that make it look as if there's linguistic support for Concepts). There's no inheritance or dynamic dispatch, no SFINAE, no metaprogramming beyond the simple fact that type functions exist. The fact that it's C++ rather than some other C++-like language is mostly unimportant, but the ideas in the book do rely on some kind of support for templates or generics or parameterized functions, and they're most interesting in the context of a language that doesn't try to hide the fact that you're ultimately running your program on an address space with mutable memory and that your data is made up of bytes.

One thing you'll notice if you're familiar with C++ and the STL is that this book leaves out a lot of fussy details like namespaces and exceptions and const correctness and thread safety and fine grained allocation control. In some interesting ways it goes far beyond the STL framework: the STL has nontrivial algorithms involving link rearrangements but they're buried inside the std::list (and now also std::forward_list) implementation and not available for generic reuse on arbitrary linked data structures. Elements of Programming shows how one can create a framework for linked iterators and link rearrangements, including linked bifurcate coordinates that are appropriate for mutating algorithms on binary trees. (Reminiscent of what some of us tried to do years ago in our binary search trees paper, but more elegant.)

The most interesting and sophisticated algorithms in this book are the memory-adaptive algorithms for partition and merging. There's no real magic to the basic idea of a memory-adaptive algorithm, although the specific instances here (especially for partition) are nontrivial and require careful analysis. The basic idea is that you start with a recursive divide-and-conquer algorithm, and instead of bottoming out at the trivial zero- or one-element case you bottom out once you get down to a small enough number of elements that you can fall back to a simpler linear-space algorithm. The consequence is that compared to the full divide-and-conquer version you can get a large speedup with even a small buffer. This is an important observation, and it has been there since the very first version of the STL, but I'm not sure that the memory-adaptive algorithms in the STL have ever really been memory-adaptive in a practical sense: they all rely on a get_temporary_buffer helper function that's supposed to return up to n bytes of temporary storage, with the idea that it will return the largest buffer that can be conveniently or efficiently allocated, and in practice I don't think that anyone has ever known what to do that's cleverer than just malloc(n) or the equivalent. I still don't know what to do that's any better than that. In practice I imagine these ideas (although not the specifics) are most important for external merge and partition and sort, where there's much more of a crisp distinction between allocating something in RAM and creating a temporary file on secondary storage.

Addison-Wesley is no longer publishing Elements of Programming and the rights have reverted to the authors. They've made it available at elementsofprogramming.com for free download and also for sale as a paper copy under their own imprint, Semigroup Press. I recommend it to pretty much all professional programmers. I recommend the paper copy: it's a short and terse book that takes time to study and work through, and spending that much time reading a PDF would get annoying.

9/19 Fritz Leiber, Swords and Deviltry

The first Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser collection, including the Hugo-winning novella “Ill Met in Lankhmar.”

The stories in Swords and Deviltry are the earliest in internal chronology; this book tells the story of how Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser began, as individuals and as companions. They're far from the earliest stories in publication order: Leiber started publishing Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories in 1939, but “Ill Met in Lankhmar” and “The Snow Women,” like the collection itself, weren't published until 1970.

9/18 Reginald Hill, A Clubbable Woman

The first Dalziel and Pascoe book, published in 1970. At the time the author didn't realize he was writing the first book of a series.

9/14 Elena Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend (tr. Ann Goldstein)

Book One of the Neapolitan Novels. Yes, it's as good as everyone says, and now I'll have to read the other three. This book is about the childhood and adolescence of the two main characters, the narrator Elena Greco (Lenù), and her friend Raffaella Cerullo (Lila), growing up in a working class neighborhood in Naples in the 1950s.

At least in the English translation, the narrator tells us which conversations are in standard Italian and which are in Neapolitan dialect. Class is an important part of the book (“Do you know what the plebs are?,” a teacher asks Elena early on in the book.), and the distinction between Italian and dialect is one of the important markers. I assume the Italian/dialect distinction was handled differently in the original.

9/8 Megan E. O'Keefe, Velocity Weapon

The book begins when the main character regains consciousness covered in medical gel. Then she notices the bad news: like that she only has one leg (perhaps unsurprising since she's in an evac pod and the last thing she remembers is her ship being ripped up by a railgun) and that she's being revived on an enemy ship. Then the ship AI tells her the really bad news: the battle she was wounded in was 230 years ago. Her planet and the enemy's were both destroyed in the war, and she might be the only living human in the whole star system.

That's all in about the first five pages; it goes backward and forward from there. The book has an interstellar empire of sorts, complicated political scheming, AIs, millennia-old secrets, and Bussard ramjets. There are several very clever plot twists. It's the first book of The Protectorate (a trilogy? a longer series?) and I'm looking forward to the second book, Chaos Vector.

9/6 Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

Alice is reading it for her freshman English class, so I figured I should reread it too. Rereading it makes it easier to notice how all the little pieces fit together, how minor characters turn into major ones, how seemingly disconnected incidents, like the resurrection-man episode, get built on later.

The second half of the book is all about the horrors of the Revolution (based apparently on Carlyle's history, which I haven't read), and the first half is about the horrors of the ancien régime that made the Revolution necessary and inevitable. Even through the very end of the book, that part is never forgotten.

9/1 Thomas Levenson, Money for Nothing

A history of the South Sea Bubble, a turning point in the history of finance: pre-modern and disorientingly alien in some ways, surprisingly modern in others. The book quotes some verse by Alexander Pope using the terms “bull” and “bear” in exactly the modern sense, even! The hook is one of the people who lost money in the South Sea Company — not a major player, but an investor and someone whose opinion on financial matters was respected: the Master of the Mint, Sir Isaac Newton. The book argues that the financial innovations of the early 18th century were in some sense an extension of the Newtonian scientific program to the world of public affairs. Perhaps a stretch. The quotes from Daniel Defoe, master polemicist both for hire and on his own account, are more directly germane and more entertaining.

I did learn a lot from this book. I learned that the South Sea Company wasn't pure speculation: a bubble, yes, but based on something real. The South Sea Company's trading hopes were always ludicrous, but what I hadn't realized was that the Company did have a boring, steady, modestly profitable line of business: repackaging and selling part of the national debt. An extension of that business, not the phantom hopes of American riches, was what inflated the bubble. The author argues something even more contrarian: despite the bubble and the wreck when it popped, the basic experiment, turning the British national debt into privately held securities trading in a liquid market, was successful. Idiosyncratic and irredeemable bonds were turned into South Sea Company shares, and at its core the conversion was never undone even when Parliament was looking for ways to repair the damage and punish the guilty. Britain was left with a very different financial system and a very different way of managing national debt than it had started with, and that left it in a stronger position in its next century of wars with France.

8/22 Seth Dickinson, The Tyrant Baru Cormorant

I mistakenly thought this was going to be the last book of the trilogy that began with The Traitor Baru Cormorant. No, it's the third book of a planned four. Baru has now ascended to the pinacles of power (or has she?), at substantial cost and as the result of some hard decisions, but her position isn't secure and she doesn't know how she'll achieve her larger goals. There are more hard decisions to be made. Plague is involved. The author warns us that it might be a while before the fourth book appears, but by the end of The Tyrant Baru Cormorant we have a clearer idea how Baru's plan might unfold.

The villains of this series, according to the author, are ideologies like race-is-destiny and gender-is-biology. The funniest part of the book is a conversation where characters are using the arguments of evolutionary psychology (not called that; it's a different world with a different intellectual tradition) to argue that gender roles, naturally somewhat different from ours, are innate and inevitable given the biological facts of human reproduction. “It's just what you said—each child is a huge investment! A woman can't afford to have all her children with one father, because then the babies would all die to the same diseases, they would all have the same strengths and flaws. And if all her men think they might be the father of a child, then they all help care for the baby. This is why it's good luck for the wife to be with all her husbands on the marriage night.”

But mostly it's not a funny book, or a happy book. It's about the workings of empire and colonialism, forced sterilization and other bodily mutilations, controlling people to obedience by conditioning and learned helplessness. The main character is ruthless and commits real betrayals and atrocities of her own (the titles of the three books call her “traitor,” “monster,” and “tyrant”), and both she and the reader continue to wonder what the real difference is between serving a monstrous system and pretending to serve it.

We also get an answer to Yali's question, but not the answer Jared Diamond gave in Guns, Germs, and Steel: Falcrest is the colonialist power instead of the colonized because it chose to be. “Empire required a will, a brain to move the beast, to reach out with appetite, to justify the devouring of other peoples as right and necessary and good, to frame slavery and conquest as acts of grace and charity.” It's a choice, not an inevitability.

8/15 Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism

The author is a white sociologist whose day job is diversity and anti-racism education. This book seems to be largely based on her experiences running training sessions. As she writes, white people frequently dismiss what she says, often angrily: “We consider a challenge to our racial worldviews as a challenge to our very identifies as good, moral people … The smallest amount of racial stress is intolerable—the mere suggestion that being white has meaning often triggers a range of defensive responses. These include emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and withdrawal from the stress-inducing situation.” A lot of white people act as if they think that describing behavior as racist is a shocking thing, apparently worse than racism itself.

I'm not sure that “fragility” is the word I would have chosen (I might have gone with something like defensiveness), but I get her point. Her observation is that white people in the US get to ignore race most of the time, don't have to think about themselves as white or what it means. Race is something that happens to other people. Lacking any experience thinking or talking about such things, and finding it so uncomfortable that one responds with deflection or anger rather than with respectful engagement or something better, really is a kind of fragility.

8/11 Titus Winters, Tom Manshreck, and Hyrum Wright (ed.), Software Engineering at Google

Also known as the Flamingo Book. It's a sort of companion to Google's Site Reliability Engineering book, and written in a similar way: a small number of overall editors and a collection of chapters each with its own authorship. This one is mostly written by SWEs instead of SREs; there's some overlap of subject matter, but not a whole lot.

The subject of this book is software engineering, not programming, and the very first chapter talks about what that means. The term “software engineering” seems to have been coined by Margaret Hamilton, and she and/or Brian Randell and/or Dave Parnas may have also coined the early definition: “The multiperson development of multiversion programs.” Or as Titus and others like to put it, it's “programming integrated over time.” The question isn't how you write a program that does what you want, but how you and a team develop a program that's still going to be useful and maintainable in the face of time and change. There's very little in this book about how to write programs or even how to design distributed systems, nothing about OOAD. There's much more about how to structure teams, how to manage processes like code review, testing, continuous integration and continuous delivery, version control, and dependency management.

That doesn't mean the book isn't substantive: those things matter, how you do them makes a difference, and this book describes valuable lessons about how to do them. Some of the practices described in this book are probably only important for an organization with a code base as large as Google's (billions of lines of code; tens of terabytes of data and metadata stored under version control; tens of thousands of commits per day). Others are generally applicable, and the industry ought to adopt them more broadly: trunk based development, higher level build systems, replacing dependency management problems with source control problems, avoiding the overuse of mocking frameworks in unit tests.

8/10 Katherine Addison, The Angel of the Crows

You've probably heard a story like this before: a wounded army doctor returns from Afghanistan to Victorian London and finds lodging in Baker Street with an enigmatic character who turns out to be a consulting detective. This version is a little different. The main character and narrator is Dr. J. H. Doyle, with both a leg wound and an aetheric wound due to a too-close encounter with one of the Fallen, and the detective is the angel Crow. This version of London includes vampires and werewolves and angels (all with recognized social and legal status), airships and cerberus automata.

Almost all of the actual mysteries are very familiar, and most of the characters even have the same names as in the original stories. We meet Enoch J. Drebber and Joseph Stangerson in the first couple of pages. I recognized A Study in Scarlet, The Sign of the Four, The Hound of the Baskervilles, “The Adventure of the Copper Beaches,” “The Adventure of the Yellow Face,” “The Adventure of the Speckled Band,” and “The Adventure of the Croocked Man.” Most of the mysteries play out almost exactly as in the original version, although sometimes the existence of the supernatural is important: The Hound of the Baskervilles feels very different in a world where everyone knows that hell-hounds and ghosts and family curses are real things.

This is of course Sherlock Holmes fanfic, and according to an author's note at the end it belongs to a specialized subcategory: wingfic, in which one reimagines a character as having wings. I had no idea that was a thing.

8/8 Tamsyn Muir, Harrow the Ninth

Harrow the Ninth is the second book of the Locked Tomb trilogy, and it's confusing in a different way than Gideon the Ninth. The main character is no longer Harrowhark Nonagesimus, Heir to the House of the Ninth, Reverend Daughter of Drearburh; she's now Harrowhark the First, Ninth Saint To Serve The King Undying. But something has gone wrong in her transformation to Lyctor; she doesn't seem completely stable, or to have full access to her Lyctoral powers or even her memories. The book has a complicated timeline and a radically different verson of the events of Gideon the Ninth, and it's not immediately obvious which parts are real, which parts deliberately falsified memory, which parts hallucination, which parts metaphor. It took me well over halfway through the book to understand more or less what was going on, and I'm still not sure just what happened at the end.

Recommended if you like skeletons and spaceships and swords and necromancy (and if you don't, why not?), but it's very much the middle book of a trilogy. One should read Gideon the Ninth first, and part of the pleasure of reading Harrow the Ninth is seeing a different view of some of the characters and events. I'll want to read Alecto the Ninth as soon as it's released.

8/4 Sarah Pinsker, A Song for a New Day

A Song for a New Day was published in 2019 and won the Nebula in 2020. It's a sort of followup to her story “Our Lady of the Open Road,” which I read when it was published in Asimov's a few years ago. And wow, I'm pretty sure the author had no idea what reading it would be like in mid 2020, or how topical it would seem.

The book is about music, trying to live with hope instead of fear, refusing to submit to control by monopolist corporations. But right now what seems most striking is that it's about life in a post-pandemic world. In the years after a series of terrorist attacks and a plague, isolation has become normal. Schools have reopened to distance learning, work at home is pervasive, socializing and dating are online, even bars are virtual. (You chat with friends or strangers via hoodspace while drinks are droned to you.) There is no live music anymore, at least not legally, because of the anticongregation laws. One of the main characters is a rock musician who lived through the transition, another is a young woman who has only dim memories of the Before and can't imagine a different way of life.

I liked it; so far I've liked everything of Sarah Pinsker's that I've read. It was a good choice for the Nebula.

8/2 Bart D. Ehrman, Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife

“Generally speaking, in the afterlife, there's a Good Place and there's a Bad Place.”

That's a pretty conventional idea these days. Even among those who don't believe in an afterlife, that's usually the afterlife that they don't believe in. This book is a history of that idea: how Christianity, in particular, ended up with the idea that people wind up in a place of unending bliss or unending torture after death.

There's no hint of that idea in the Tanakh: barely any hint of any afterlife, really. There is an afterlife of sorts in our oldest Greek and Mesopotamian texts, but it's all pretty vague and there's certainly no notion of systematized posthumous reward and punishment. You'll even struggle to find the modern ideas of heaven and hell in the Christian New Testament, although you can get closer, especially in the parts that were written later. Heaven and Hell traces the gradual evolution of today's Christian idea through a variety of forms, including apocalyptic Jewish ideas that were common among the Essenes in Jesus's time, several subtly different versions of resurrection of the body, and immortality of the soul with immediate judgment.

It's always hard to know what people actually believed so long ago, but we can learn something from a close reading of ancient texts, especially if you do the difficult textual analysis of figuring out the order in which they were written. This work includes both a close reading of canonical texts and of texts that didn't get included into the canon, like the Book of Enoch, the Apocalypse of Peter, the Apocalypse of Paul, the Gospel of Thomas, and the Gospel of Nicodemus.

8/1 Joseph Roth, The Radetzky March (tr. Joachim Neugroschel)

“Back then, before the Great War, when the incidents reported on these pages took place, it was not yet a matter of indifference whether a person lived or died.”

The Radetzky March was published in 1932, looking back to an earlier time. It's a multi-generational story of the von Trotta family, beginning when the young lieutenant Joseph Trotta is ennobled for saving the life of the young Kaiser Franz Joseph I in 1859 at the Battle of Solferino, quickly moving on to Trotta's son and then to his grandson Carl Joseph, the main character for most of the book. It's a portrait of the Austro-Hungarian Empire as a whole, and more specifically a portrait of the last days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a civilization in decline. More and more characters as the book goes on have the sense that the Empire has alredy ceased to exist in all but form, sometimes even openly saying so. The epilogue includes Franz Joseph's death in 1916.

7/27 P. G. Wodehouse, The Code of the Woosters

One of the best Jeeves and Wooster novels, perhaps the best. This is the one with the 18th century cow-creamer and Roderick Spode.

7/26 Deborah Levy, Hot Milk

Deborah Levy is a well known British writer; this is the first book of hers that I read. I was looking for something new and picked it up more or less at random. Well, not quite random: it had “Man Booker Prize finalist” on the front cover, and I've generally liked Booker winners and finalists.

I liked Hot Milk too. It's the story of a young woman traveling to southern Spain with her mother to see a medical specialist who might be able to help with her mother's mysterious chronic illness that has dominated her life for decades, about her difficult relationship with both her parents, and about her getting closer to finding her own identity. The Medusa is involved.

7/25 Agatha Christie, Murder in Three Acts

One of the characters in this book is Doctor Strange, but he isn't Earth's Sorcerer Supreme. Murder in Three Acts was published in 1934, and Stephen Strange is a Silver Age character first introduced in Strange Tales #110 (1963).

7/23 Holly Black, The Queen of Nothing

“Well, he has certainly made them see me as more than just the mortal queen. Now they see me as the murderess queen. I am not sure how I feel about it, but seeing the intensity of interest in their gazes now, I cannot deny it's effective.”

Not that the people in the royal courts of Elfhame are all categorically opposed to murdering. This is the last book in the trilogy that began with The Cruel Prince and The Wicked King, in which the main character learns that she was wrong about a number of things.

7/20 Kieron Gillen (writer), Jamie McKelvie (artist), Matthew Wilson (colourist), Clayton Cowles (letterer), The Wicked + The Divine, vol 9, “Okay”

One of the finalists for the 2020 Best Graphic Story Hugo. Maybe I would have liked more it if I'd read volume 1–8 first, or maybe not. As is, about all I can say is that it definitely doesn't stand on its own.

7/20 Mel Lindauer, Taylor Larimore, and Michael LeBoeuf, The Bogleheads’ Guide to Investing

Investing isn't fun or exciting, at least not if you're doing it right. Fortunately it also isn't very complicated — again, not if you're doing it right. You can make it as complicated as you want, but that's much more likely to hurt than to help. This book is a good introduction and a pointer to more resources, including the bogleheads.org site.

7/19 Wendy Xu and Suzanne Walker, Mooncakes

Another finalist for the 2020 Best Graphic Story Hugo: a cozy New England romance between a young witch and a young non-binary werewolf, with just a little bit of demonology.

7/19 Nnedi Okorafor (writer), Tana Ford (artist), James Devlin (colorist), Sal Cipriano (letterer), LaGuardia: A Very Modern Story of Immigration

Another finalist forWinner of the 2020 Best Graphic Story Hugo. It's partly a story of immigration to the United States, specifically about the Nigerian-American immigrant experience that Nnedi knows personally, and partly a story of immigration to Lagos and New York and other cities from farther away places. It's largely about acceptance and welcoming; as we see from the cover, which shows a protest, that's something not everyone is willing to do. Nnedi dedicates the book to “all the extraterrestrials who have come, are currently here, and will arrive,” including her beautiful cat Periwinkle Chukwu.

7/19 Kieron Gillen (writer), Stephanie Hans (artist), Clayton Cowles (letterer), Die: vol. 1: Fantasy Heartbreaker

A fantasy role-playing game (the beta rules for the game in the story are at diecomic.com/rpg) becomes too real: six teenagers are trapped in the game world, five of them returning after two years. The real story starts many years later when the five, now in their 40s, return to the world of Die. J. R. R. Tolkien makes an appearance, as do the trenches of the Western Front during something that seems a lot like the first Battle of the Somme.

7/18 Brian K. Vaughan (writer), Cliff Chiang (artist), Matt Wilson (colors), Jared K. Fletcher (letters), Paper Girls 6

The end of the time war, and I think the end of the story.

7/18 Brian K. Vaughan (writer), Cliff Chiang (artist), Matt Wilson (colors), Jared K. Fletcher (letters), Paper Girls 5

  • You must remember this
  • A kiss is still a kiss
  • A sigh is just a sigh
  • The fundamental things apply
  • As time goes by
  • (Here is a pre-Casablanca performance of the song, which I think includes all the lyrics quoted in the comic.)

    7/18 Brian K. Vaughan (writer), Cliff Chiang (artist), Matt Wilson (colors), Jared K. Fletcher (letters), Paper Girls 4

    In which we get a partial explanation of what's going on, what two of the time traveler factions are trying to do, and what the relationships are between some of the characters.

    7/18 Brian K. Vaughan (writer), Cliff Chiang (artist), Matt Wilson (colors), Jared K. Fletcher (letters), Paper Girls 3

    I read this when it was nominated for a Hugo a few years back. It's still confusing (we seem to have at least three different groups of time travelers?), but the story does make a lot more sense if you read it in order starting with volumes 1 and 2 than if you try to pick it up in the middle.

    7/18 Brian K. Vaughan (writer), Cliff Chiang (artist), Matt Wilson (colors), Jared K. Fletcher (letters), Paper Girls 2

    Most of this volume takes place in 2016, a few months before The Problems begin. This volume includes both time travel and godzilla-sized tardigrades, which are considerably less cute than the normal size ones.

    7/18 Brian K. Vaughan (writer), Cliff Chiang (artist), Matt Wilson (color), Jared K. Fletcher (letters), Paper Girls 1

    Paper girls as in girls who deliver newspapers. Remember those? This comic starts in 1988, when newspapers were a thing, but it quickly becomes obvious that time travel is involved. The main characters haven't yet figured out just what's going on, and I haven't either.

    7/17 Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda, Monstress volume four: The Chosen

    One of the 2020 Hugo finalists for Best Graphic Story. Like the first three volumes, it has beautiful artwork and a very complicated story.

    7/15 Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda, Monstress volume three: Haven

    7/12 Naomi Kritzer, Catfishing on CatNet

    A Lodestar finalist, and a sort of take-off on Kritzer's Hugo-winning and very fun short story “Cat Pictures Please.” As in the short story, one of the main characters is an AI who wants to be helpful and friendly and who really likes cat pictures. Believable (what other kinds of training data would one use?) and relatable. Unlike the short story, some of the main characters are humans.

    As a computer nerd, I was entertained to see references to the AI-Box gedankenexperiment, the AI alignment problem, and the computational complexity of integer factorization. I didn't completely believe the setting: the technology seemed about 10 years beyond what we have in 2020, but other aspects of society (e.g. what kinds of people are and aren't familiar with the idea of non-binary gender) seemed very contemporary. Anyway, I enjoyed it, and I'm sure I'll read the sequel(s).

    7/11 Fran Wilde, Riverland

    Another Lodestar finalist, a YA novel about stories, dreams, and domestic violence. It isn't clear at first to what extent “house magic” is real, or a story, or a comforting lie, or a metaphor for the abusive behavior by the main character's awful parents, or something else.

    It ended rather abruptly. Some things that I expected to be resolved weren't.

    7/10 Agatha Christie, A Pocket Full of Rye

    A Miss Marple book, although she doesn't show up until halfway through.

    7/9 Yoon Ha Lee, Dragon Pearl

    Yoon Ha Lee's first YA novel, and a Lodestar finalist. Like his earlier Machineries of Empire trilogy, it's a weird mixture of space opera and fantasy. Maybe slightly less weird than the earlier Hexarchate books. There are starships and space stations and terraforming and a Thousand Worlds confederation, and also ghosts, mystical energy, and supernatural creatures; the main character is a fox spirit.

    7/6 T. Kingfisher, Minor Mage

    Another Lodestar finalist. It's the story of Oliver, a 12 year old boy and a very minor mage, who sets off with his armadillo familiar on a quest to bring back rain for his village. He only knows three spells, one of which is just to control his armadillo dander allergy. I found it fun, funny, but mostly insubstantial.

    7/5 Holly Black, The Wicked King

    Sequel to The Cruel Prince, and one of the finalists for the 2020 Lodestar. It's the middle book in a trilogy. The king is indeed wicked, but he's far from the most wicked character in the book. There are plots within plots; most of the characters are very tricky and good at deception, even the Faerie who are incapable of telling outright lies.

    7/4 Holly Black, The Cruel Prince

    All of the princes in the story are cruel, really, and so are a lot of the non-prince characters. They're Faerie, so beauty and cruelty just come with the territory. The main character is a young mortal woman, and naturally it ends up with her making an alliance with one of them.

    7/2 Frances Hardinge, Deeplight

    One of the finalists for the 2020 Lodestar, the not-a-Hugo award for Best YA novel. From the very first page of this book you can tell (and if you've read any of Hardinge's other books you'll find it unsurprising) that it's going to be weird and wonderful and inventive: a story of an archipelago where everything impossible is true, of nightmarish old gods who now are all inexplicably dead. It takes a little longer to realize that it's also the story of an abusive relationship.

    6/30 P. Djèlí Clark, The Haunting of Tram Car 015

    Another Best Novella finalist. It's sort of a supernatural police procedural, set in a magical alternate-universe early 20th century Cairo. It didn't really feel complete to me, more like a story that's setting the stage for a series.

    6/30 Agatha Christie, Poirot Investigates

    Short stories.

    6/29 Becky Chambers, To Be Taught, if Fortunate

    One of the Hugo finalists for Best Novella: a story about one of humanity's first interstellar expeditions. The title comes from Kurt Waldheim's greeting on the Voyager Golden Record.

    The second Poirot novel.

    6/27 Rivers Solomon, with Daveed Diggs, William Hutson, and Jonathan Snipes, The Deep

    Yes, that Daveed Diggs. There's an afterword explaining the complicated history of the story, including what that “with” means. Rivers Solomon wrote the novella The Deep, but there have been several other iterations of the story, one of them a song also called “The Deep.” The editor describes the evolution of this mythology as “a game of artistic Telephone.” It's one of the Best Novella finalists for the 2020 Hugo.

    In all versions of the story, it's about an aquatic water-breathing people (the word “mermaid” doesn't appear in the story, and anyway, they don't seem much like classic mermaids) descended from victims of the Atlantic slave trade. In this version of the story it's also about memory, specifically about the memory of past trauma and horror as a legacy that's almost impossible to live with but also something you can't give up without losing yourself. The main character came across to me as autistic or in some other way neurodivergent, but perhaps that was metaphor more than anything else.

    I liked the conceit of the story, and the ambitious themes, better than I liked the story itself. It took too long for the actual story to happen. Perhaps I would have liked it better at shorter length, perhaps in one of the earlier iterations.

    6/25 Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone, This Is How You Lose the Time War

    One of the Hugo finalists for Best Novella. It's about the relationship between two agents, one from the Agency and one from Garden, in their vast war to rewrite the time strands of the past and shape the future. It becomes obvious pretty quickly that it's a love story, mostly told through letters.

    I could have sworn that I'd read an early version of this novella years ago, in some science fiction magazine, but the publication history doesn't seem to bear that out. I wonder what dim memory I was confusing with this.

    6/21 Albert Camus, The Plague (tr. Stuart Gilbert)

    Originally published in 1947 as La Peste. It's a novel about a terrible epidemic of bubonic plague in Oran; it's also a metaphor about the plague of fascism. Very topical.

    The plague eventually ends, but the narrator closes with the warning that “the tale he had to tell could not be one of a final victory. It could be only the record of what had had to be done, and what assuredly would have to be done again in the never ending fight against terror and its relentless onslaughts, despite their personal afflictions, by all who, while unable to be saints but refusing to bow down to pestilences, strive their utmost to be healers.”

    6/13 Jacqueline Winspear, Journey to Munich

    Also a journey to somewhere near Munich: Dachau. The year is 1938, and this is more like a spy novel than a mystery novel.

    6/13 Thomas Mann, Death in Venice and Seven Other Stories (tr. H. T. Lowe-Porter)

    Stories, mostly of novella length, published between 1902 (“Tristan”) and 1929 (“Mario and the Magician”). I've had this book since college (it's the standard Vintage paperback with the yellow and blue cover that one buys in college) and read it once before, years ago. The only stories I remembered at all well were “Death in Venice” and “Mario and the Magician.” I reread it now, of course, because “Death in Venice” seemed like good pandemic reading.

    The first time I read this book I had yet to get into Wagner, which is probably the reason I didn't find “The Blood of the Walsungs” or “Tristan” especially memorable and why I didn't notice the Wagnerian references in a few of the other stories. This time it cracked me up (although not without a sense of dread) to read a story about twins who are actually named Siegmund and Sieglinde, where the climactic moment is a performance of Die Walküre cutting between the Siegmund and Sieglinde on stage and the Siegmund and Sieglinde up in the box watching them.

    6/6 Daniel Friedman and Matthias Felleisen, The Little Schemer (4th edition)

    Earlier editions were called The Little LISPer. Under either name, it's essentially an introduction to recursion. The hardest part of it by far is chapter 9, “… and Again, and Again, and Again, …,” which includes both Turing's proof of the unsolvability of the halting problem, and a derivation of the applicative-order Y combinator.

    6/1 Seanan McGuire, Middlegame

    One of the Best Novel finalists for the 2020 Hugo. It's a story about alchemy and children's stories, with a complicated timeline and chapter numbering scheme (it begins with “Book VII. The End”) that eventually makes sense. I was amused to see that most of it takes place in three places I've lived: Cambridge, Berkeley, and Palo Alto.

    One of the main characters is a math genius and a UC Berkeley math grad student. I've known a number of UC Berkeley math grad students. Alas, neither the math, nor the way the character and her fellow students talked about it, rang true to me.

    5/26 Louis L'Amour, The Sackett Brand

    A Western, like most (but not all) of L'Amour's books.

    5/25 José Saramago, Blindness (tr. Juan Sager)

    One of Saramago's best known novels, and one of the works that the Swedish Academy mentioned when they gave him the Nobel Prize for Literature. I've only read one of his other novels, The History of the Siege of Lisbon, and that was some time ago.

    Blindness is a grim story of an epidemic of sudden blindness, set in an unnamed city in an unnamed country. It's not a “cozy catastrophe.” There's an initial attempt to understand the disaster and to prevent it spreading through quarantine and contact tracing, which fails. Society breaks down completely, and there's filth (which the novel doesn't shrink from), overcrowding, starvation, desperation, violence. Some people behave well, and there's still some amount of compassion and maybe even a little bit of hope, but most people are too afraid for themselves to worry about others and some people are worse than just afraid.

    The style (and here I can only assume that the translator was faithful to the original Portuguese of Ensaio sobre a Cegueira) lends to the disorientation. Not just the city is unnamed, but all of the characters; they're referred to using descriptions like “the doctor's wife,” “the old man with the black eye patch,” “the first blind man,” “the girl with the dark glasses,” and “the car thief,” sort of like the repeated Homeric epithets but without the names that go with them. It's lighly punctuated: no quotation marks, and a lot of what another author would render as sentences are instead held together by commas.

    “As the saying goes, in the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king, Forget about sayings, But this is not the same, Here not even the cross-eyed would be saved, As I see it, the best solution would be to share the food out in equal parts throughout the wards, then each internee can be self-sufficient, Who spoke, It was me, Who's me, Me, which ward are you from, From ward two, Who would have believed such cunning, since ward two has fewer patients such an arrangement would be to their advantage and they would get more to eat than us, since our ward is full, I was only trying to be helpful, the proverb also says that if the one who does the sharing out fails to get the better part, he's either a fool or a dullard, Shit, that's quite enough of proverbs, these sayings get on my nerves.”

    5/22 Iain Banks, The Quarry

    Iain Banks's last novel, published posthumously in 2013. It's a small scale and quiet book about an autistic young man (from the first page: “Most things, I've come to understand, fit into some sort of spectrum. The descriptions of myself fit into a spectrum that stretches from ‘highly gifted’ at one end to ‘nutter’ at the other, both of which I am comfortable with.”) whose father is dying of cancer. There are some McGuffins and secrets, but mostly what's important is the relationships.

    5/17 Alix E. Harrow, The Ten Thousand Doors of January

    A portal fantasy with a main character whose name is taken from the god of portals, and one of the Best Novel finalists for the 2020 Hugo. It's partly about portal fantasies and partly about the power of the written word.

    “Doors, he told her, are change, and change is a dangerous necessity. Doors are revolutions and upheavals, uncertainties and mysteries, axis points around which entire worlds can be turned. They are the beginnings and endings of every true story, the passages between that lead to adventures and—here he smiled—even love.”

    5/14 Martha Wells, Network Effect

    The first Murderbot novel. Like the four novellas that preceded it, it's wonderful. Probably best to read the novellas first; there are a lot of references to events in them.

    My favorite part of Network Effect is Murderbot's friendship with ART, and of course Murderbot's appalled reaction when its human companions try to talk to it about such things.

    Ratthi sighed, leaned against the wall, and said, “So, you have a relationship with this transport.”
    I was horrified. Humans are disgusting. “No!”
    Ratthi made a little exasperated noise. “I didn't mean a sexual relationship.”
    Amena's brow furrowed in confusion and curiosity. “Is that possible?”
    “No!” I told her.

    There'a an interview with Martha Wells on tor.com where she says the original idea she started with was about an enslaved security person, and it does become even more explicit in the novel that what's going on in the book is slavery. (Not that this was ever hidden or ambiguous in the novellas.)

    5/10 Seanan McGuire, Come Tumbling Down

    As the title suggests, the fifth Wayward Children novella is the further adventures of Jacqueline and Jillian on the Moors.

    5/9 Seanan McGuire, In an Absent Dream

    The fourth Wayward Children novella: the backstory of Lundy, one of the other characters from Every Heart a Doorway. It's inspired by Christina Rossetti's “Goblin Market,” which I've never read. I really ought to read more poetry.

    5/4 Seanan McGuire, Beneath the Sugar Sky

    The third Wayward Children novella: a classic magical quest.

    5/3 Seanan McGuire, Down Among the Sticks and Bones

    I didn't like this novella much the first time. It works better when it's read as intended: as the backstory of two important characters who were first introduced in Every Heart a Doorway.

    5/2 Hilary Mantel, The Mirror & the Light

    The book begins: “Once the queen's head is severed, he walks away.” The queen in question is Anne Boleyn and the “he” is Thomas Cromwell, and since this is the third book in Mantel's trilogy about him, it both begins and ends with a severed head. It takes Cromwell through the peak of his success, no longer merely a self-made man who rose from lowly origins to become Master Secretary, but now also Lord Privy Seal, Baron Cromwell of Wimbledon, knight of the Most Noble Order of the Garter, Earl of Essex. Anyone who reads a book like this probably knows enough history to know how the story will end, but even without the benefit of hindsight Cromwell is always aware that his fall could come any time.

    “Somewhere—or Nowhere, perhaps—there is a society ruled by philosophers. They have clean hands and pure hearts. But even in the metropolis of light there are middens and manure-heaps, swarming with flies. Even in the republic of virtue you need a man who will shovel up the shit, and somewhere it is written that Cromwell is his name.”

    5/1 Agatha Christie, The Man in the Brown Suit

    Huh. I'm sure I read this, decades ago, and the only things I remembered were that it had something to do with jewel thefts and that it was an Hercule Poirot novel. I kept waiting for Poirot to show up, and it wasn't until about halfway through the book that I realized I must have been remembering wrong.

    4/28 Jacqueline Winspear, A Dangerous Place

    The previous book was set in 1933, and the two before that in 1932, but this one, surprisingly, skips ahead to 1937. It was an eventful four years in Maisie's life, partly in happy ways, partly not. The book takes place in Gibraltar, where Maisie stops off on the way back to England, so it's also relevant that 1937 was the year of Guernica and the beginning of the siege of Madrid.

    4/25 Phil & Kaja Foglio, Girl Genius: Queens and Pirates

    Girl Genius book 18, in which Agatha, now universally recognized as the Lady Heterodyne, travels to England and meets Her Undying Majesty Queen Albia. My favorite scene was the battle between the pirates and the Smoke Knights. YARRR!

    4/22 John Scalzi, The Last Emperox

    Last book in the trilogy that began with The Collapsing Empire. As the title promises, this book does indeed have the last emperox of a collapsing empire. It's somewhat more topical than the author intended when he started writing the first book.

    4/20 Seanan McGuire, Every Heart a Doorway

    First book (a novella, really) of the Wayward Children series, set at a boarding school for children who have returned from portal fantasy adventures and don't quite belong here anymore. Alice just finished it and loved it, so I figured I should read it too.

    4/16 Kameron Hurley, The Light Brigade

    Yes, it's military science fiction, but it has nothing to do with the Battle of Balaclava. The main character is a grunt fighting for a horrible corporate dystopia; the title comes from the fact that the soldiers deploy by decorporealizing and recorporealizing, turning into light so they can get to Mars in minutes instead of months. The process doesn't always go as well as the soldiers and logistics techs would like.

    When I heard that this book was military science fiction involving travel at the speed of light, I assumed it would be something like The Forever War, a soldier returning home to a disorienting and increasingly alien far future. No, the books aren't very similar. The main character's disorientation is for other reasons.

    4/11 Joseph and Frances Gies, Life in a Medieval Castle

    A history of the medieval European castle, roughly from the 11th century through the 15th, and of the classes of people whose lives depended on it: the castle's Lord and Lady, the chief servants, the knights, the villagers who grew the food for it. It focuses on the castle in England, taking Chepstow Castle, originally built in the 11th century on the border with Wales, as the chief example.

    Medieval castles have some continuity with other forms of fortification used before and after, of course, and some medieval castles were of military importance as recently as WWII, but the castle was also distinctive in important ways. The castle in its distinctively medieval sense seems to have evolved from the fortification techniques that Belisarius developed for his North African campaigns, later adopted and refined by Islamic military architects, later adopted by western Christendom during the wars in Spain and France. Castles came to England with the Normans.

    I leaned lots of new vocabulary words from the book! Pantler, for example: the servant in charge of the pantry, just as the butler was the servant in charge of the buttery. (The buttery was called that because it's where the wine butts were.) Or tiercel, a male hawk. (Only the females were called falcons.)

    4/9 Jacqueline Winspear, Leaving Everything Most Loved

    4/6 Sir Partha Dasgupta, Economics: A Very Short Introduction

    As with the other books in Oxford University Press's Very Short Introductions series, it is indeed very short: about 160 pages. The author doesn't try to give an overview of a typical economics textbook, since a 160 page summary of a 1000 page book isn't a very interesting short introduction. Instead, he says in the preface, his goal is to show the ways economists think, as applied to important problems — the same ones, he says, that he discussed in his longer book An Inquiry into Well-Being and Destitution. The book is framed around the lives of two imagined ten year old girls: Becky, who lives in a prosperous American midwest suburb, and Desta, who lives with her family of subsistence farmers in southwest Ethiopia. A big part of the book is about how and why their lives are so different.

    4/4 Jacqueline Winspear, Elegy for Eddie

    Another Maisie Dobbs story, set in April 1933. The accidental death or murder that Maisie is hired to investigate at the beginning of the book appears to be a purely private matter with no connection to major world events, important to those who knew the dead man and to nobody else — but it is 1933. Winston Churchill is mentioned, and so are the Mitford sisters.

    4/2 Daniel Defoe, A Journal of the Plague Year

    I've read two of Defoe's other novels before, Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders, but I'd never read A Journal of the Plague Year until now. This seemed like a good time to read it.

    It was published as a novel, but it reads as thinly fictionalized history. It was written in 1721, when there was reason to fear that the Black Death might return, and it tells the story of the Great Plague of 1665. The anonymous narrator, a saddler who remains in London and survives, tells us what he saw and what he learned (including lots of statistics) and the anecdotes and rumors he heard. The narrator functions mostly as observer; after the early part, where we learn how and why he chose to remain when his brother and so many other fled, his story mostly fades away. His personality and point of view never do, though.

    According to the foreword in the edition I read, scholars have identified some of the sources Defoe used. Possibly some of it is also based on stories he heard from his parents and other older relatives (Defoe would have had few or no memories of it himself; he was 4 or 5 during the plague), and possibly the fact that the narrator signs himself H. F. at the end, the initials of Defoe's uncle, is a hint.

    4/1 T.S. McNamara, Rust In Action (MEAP v11)

    A early-access release of a new introduction to the Rust language. The book makes atypical choices about what to include and what not to. What's not included: a lot of Rust-specific features, like how to define functions with lifetime annotations, or how to use traits to constrain generic definitions, or how to use Cell and RefCell. What is included: a lot of examples of using Rust for different things, like networking, and using piston_window for graphics, and even really low level stuff like signal handlers and x86 intrinsics and setjmp/longjmp.

    3/24 Iain M. Banks, The Hydrogen Sonata

    The last Culture novel, and as it happens it's about the end of a civilization: a civilization of age and technological ability comparable to the Culture preparing to Sublime, which is perhaps the way that the Culture will also someday end.

    This book also features what I believe is the longest Culture ship name in any of the books. For most of the book the ship in question just goes by the Mistake Not…, but eventually it reveals its full name to another character: Mistake Not My Current State of Joshing Gentle Peevishness For The Awesome And Terrible Majesty Of the Towering Seas Of Ire That Are Themselves the Mere Milquetoast Shallows Fringing My Vast Oceans Of Wrath. As it says: “Cool, eh?”

    3/20 Jon Ronson, Lost at Sea

    A collection of pieces, many previously published in The Guardian: journalism in the broad sense, but where there's no effort to make Ronson's own part in the story invisible. Most of the pieces are simultaneously ridiculous and disturbing, in different measures. My favorite was “Who Killed Richard Cullen,” a piece about the workings and consequences of the subprime loan industry.

    3/15 Jeanne Martinet, Truer Than True Romance: Classic Love Comics Retold

    The front cover promises “Classic Love Comics Retold,” and that's what just what this book is: a parody of DC Comics girls' romance comics from the 50s and 60s, with new captions and stories to go with the original artwork. The stories include “Too Dumb for Love!,” “Psychic Matchmaker,” “Loving Gay Men,” and “Narcissist Heart.”

    3/15 Iain Banks, Stonemouth

    I bought a copy of Stonemouth some time around 2012 or 2013, soon after it was published, but this is the first time I've read it. It begins with a 25 year old man returning to the northeast Scotland town that he's from — or more to the point, as we learn very early on, the town that he was run out of five years ago and that he's still not sure it's safe to return to, even just returning for a long weekend to attend a funeral.

    The book is mostly narrow in scope in both place (the town of Stonemouth) and time (the four days of Stewart's visit) but with flashbacks and memories of other places and times, including just what Stewart did that caused such upheaval five years ago. There's a fair bit of action packed into those four days and even more conversation, reminiscences, sorting out of relationships, trying to understand what can't be repaired and what can.

    3/13 Margery Allingham, Mystery Mile

    The further adventures of Albert Campion and an international ring of super criminals, published 1930. It's more thriller than mystery, but some things are mysterious. I found the central mystery pretty obvious, some of the peripheral ones less so.

    3/10 Jacqueline Winspear, A Lesson in Secrets

    I don't think the year is explicitly mentioned, but this book must also be set in 1932. There are a number of transitions in this book; one of the biggest is that in this book it's becoming clear to a number of characters that they're not living in the postwar era so much as the interwar era.

    3/8 Jacqueline Winspear, The Mapping of Love and Death

    The prologue is in an unsurprising time but a surprising place: August 1914, southern California. A young man of British ancestry buys land that he believes will become a lucrative oil field, learns that war has been declared, and promptly sails for England to try to volunteer. He dies in 1916, as one does. His remains are discovered many years later, in early 1932, by a farmer working the land somewhere in the Somme Valley, and Maisie is hired to investigate the death.

    3/7 Peter Godfrey-Smith, Other Minds: The Octopus, The Sea, and The Deep Origins of Consciousness

    Peter Godfrey-Smith is a philosophy professor who specializes in philosophy of science, an amateur scuba diver, and a published octopus researcher. Part of the inspiration for Other Minds comes from the philosophical literature on consciousness, including the work of David Hume, John Dewey, David Chalmers, John Nagel (obligatory link to “What is it Like to be a Bat”), and especially Daniel Dennett. It's also inspired by the biological literature, and by Godfrey-Smith's own encounters with octopuses and other cephalopods.

    Godfrey-Smith observes that animals with complex active bodies are rare compared to the full spectrum of animal life, and animals with large complicated brains are even rarer: some vertebrates, especially mammals and birds, and some cephalopods, especially octopuses. What's especially interesting is that these animals are far removed from each other. The fork, one side leading to mollusks and arthropods and the other leading to vertebrates and starfish, was probably about 600 million years ago. Intelligence evolved independently at least twice, and it evolved differently. Octopus eyes are a lot like ours, but octopus brains aren't. For one thing, they're much more distributed: a big chunk of the octopus nervous system is in their arms. What it's like to be an octopus must be very different from what it's like to be a bat or a human.

    One of the interesting distinctions the book makes, which is becoming more interesting now that biologists and psychologists have started addressing the what-is-consciousness question that previously seemed like the exclusive domain of philosophers: consciousness, with all the connotations of short term memory or unification of sensory experience or the existence of a global workspace, and simple sentience, the existence of any sort of subjective experience. I've previously tended to treat those two words as synonyms, but it's a useful distinction. Maybe a millipede isn't conscious in the same sense as a human or a cat or an octopus, but being a millipede, unlike being a rock, probably feels like something. However consciousness evolved, gradualism and intermediate states are a reasonable assumption.

    One of the puzzling facts about octopuses is that they're very intelligent and also that most octopus species have very brief lives. I learned from this book that there is a generally accepted evolutionary explanation of death by old age. Most of the people who study the evolution of aging think of the octopus as an anomaly, but Godfrey-Smith argues that the generally accepted model suffices to explain their lifespans.

    3/4 Tamsyn Muir, Gideon the Ninth

    I was following Liberty Hardy's Gideon the Ninth reread on tor.com, so I decided to reread it too. (Also in preparation for the second book in the Locked Tomb trilogy, Harrow the Ninth, which is coming out in a couple months.) Hardy points out that Gideon the Ninth is sort of like The Westing Game with more skeletons and swords and necromancy; it also bears some resemblance to And Then There Were None. It's interesting rereading it, knowing about the things that most of the characters aren't telling, seeing which of them are hinted at, and being able to notice how sometimes there's some extreme misdirection without quite lying.

    Most of this book is told from Gideon's point of view, and her voice is one of the one of the fun parts of the book. “The Lady of the Ninth House stood before the drillshaft, wearing black and sneering. Reverend Daughter Harrowhark Nonagesimus had pretty much cornered the market on wearing black and sneering. It comprised 100 percent of her personality. Gideon marveled that someone could live in the universe only seventeen years and yet wear black and sneer with such ancient self-assurance.” Also a reminder of just how young Gideon and Harrow are! Gideon dismisses the heir and cavalier of the Fourth House as kids or “shitty teens,” but she's only a few years older.

    2/29 Robert Silverberg, Lord Valentine's Castle

    The story of a dispossessed king on a quest to regain his throne. The book has a strong flavor of fantasy about it, starting with the title and the cover illustration, but it's explicit from early on that it takes place on an extrasolar planet, settled many thousands of years ago by colonists from Old Earth and other places and still occasionally visited by starships. It's also explicit that the planet of Majipoor is much larger than Earth, habitable by beings like us only because it's also metal-poor and much less dense.

    2/24 Daniel P. Friedman and David Thrane Christiansen, The Little Typer

    An introduction to dependent types in the context of a lisp-like toy language, Pie. The Little Typer is sort of a sequel to The Little Schemer, sharing the style of presentation (something like a Socratic dialogue, sometimes rigorous, sometimes breezy, sometimes both) and sharing a co-author. I've never read The Little Schemer, or its earlier version The Little LISPer, and I really ought to; I've heard good things about it, and I liked The Little Typer.

    So what are dependent types, and why does one need a book about them? The literal definition, which we get at the beginning of chapter 7, is that “A type that is determined by something that is not a type is called a dependent type,” but that doesn't capture what's interesting about the concept. The C++ type std::array<int, 16> is a type that's determined by something that's not a type, and there's nothing noteworthy about it. It starts becoming more interesting in light of other Pie rules. Every valid expression is either a type or is described by a type, and types are themselves expressions: an atom like 'baguette is an expression with type Atom and (cons 'spinach (cdr (cons 'potato 'olive))) is an expression with type (Pair Atom Atom), and Atom and (Pair Atom Atom) are expressions with type U. Also, functions in Pie are always total functions; there's no such thing as a function that fails or that fails to terminate, which means, for example, that there can be no such thing as a function that returns the first element of a list. (What would it return for a list of size 0?)

    That's where dependent types start looking interesting. Continuing on this example we can introduce lists of arbitrary element type and length, described by types like (Vec Atom 16) or (Vec Nat 3), and we can have a function that returns the first element of a vector of arbitrary type and arbitrary non-zero length, where the function's type is (Π ((E U) (ℓ Nat)) (→ (Vec E (add1 ℓ)) E)). Or we can have a function that returns a list of an arbitrary number of copies of the atom 'a, whose type is (Π ((n Nat)) (Vec Atom n)), which illustrates the interesting fact that there's no sharp distinction between compile time and run time (the word “compile” doesn't appear in the book) and that types, like any other expression, are things you perform computation over. We can generalize this to other mechanisms of using more specific types so that, in more cases, the type system itself can capture what the function is supposed to do and can rule out incorrect definitions.

    And a large fraction of the book is actually about something else. It's about being able to read types themselves as assertions. We can read Π, the qualifier that lets you write generic types, as “for all,” and we can read a differerent type qualifier, Σ, as “there exists,” and we can read the type constructor for function types, , as logical inference, and we can introduce dependent types that represent assertions of equality, like (= Nat j k). This encodes intuitionistic logic into Pie: a type represents an assertion and providing a value of that type represents a proof. (Intuitionistic logic because all proofs are necessarily constructive, so a proof of ¬¬x isn't a proof of x.) A lot of the book is about how one uses this machinery to prove things like the type (Π ((n Nat)) (→ (Even n) (Odd (add1 n)))). In practice, sophisticated dependent type systems seem to be found in theorem provers like Coq and Agda.

    Something I'm still unclear about: what dependent types are useful for in the context of a language that does distinguish between compile time and run time and that has not just typing but static typing, and what the most interesting applications are other than representing intuitionistic logic as code.

    2/23 Henry James, Washington Square

    I think this is the first Henry James novel I've ever read; somehow I just never got around to him before. It seemed familiar to me, though; perhaps I saw a film adaptation long ago (there seem to have been several over the years, including a 1947 version starring Olivia de Haviland), or perhaps it's just because everything that happened in it was so inevitable. It's a short novel with just a few characters, and it's a story about what happens when they don't change in exactly the ways that they say they won't change.

    2/21 William Shakespeare, The Third Part of Henry the Sixth, with the Death of the Duke of York

    Also the death of York's youngest son, and of Lord Clifford, and the Earl of Warwick, and Henry VI himself, and many others. It's a fast moving play! York's third son, crooked Richard, later Duke of Gloucester and still later Richard III, initially seems a sympathetic character but doesn't stay that way for long.

    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 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 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 and even more sinister mystical racism, 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 chapter “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 his own 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. Both versions of the name make 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, that plays little role in the story.) Communication is still imperfect and largely computer mediated, though, partly because primate and arachnid minds work differently and partly just 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, the Duke of Somerset and Richard Plantagenet (later Duke of York) take red and white 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