What I read in 2023

1/22 Naomi Novik, The Last Graduate

Reread. One of the things that's fun about the Scholomance books is the narrator's voice. This book is funny in a dark way, partly because the horrors of the school are so over the top (usually about a quarter of the entering class survives through graduation — the rest are eaten by monsters or poisoned when they're insufficiently careful choosing their cafeteria food or blown up in alchemy lab or the like), and partly because of the way El describes them.

I gather that the usual purpose of a Field Day is to build school spirit by letting people run around doing sport in the fresh air and cheering each other on in their achievements. We don't have any fresh air or school spirit, so instead we all gather together down in the gymnasium and cheer each other on for having stayed alive long enough to experience another Field Day. Attendance is mandatory, and enforced by the cafeteria being closed all day, so the only place to get food is the buffet that gets laid on in the gym in an enormous bank of antique Automat-style cases that are trundled out for the occasion. … To add to the festive atmosphere, normally at least one or two kids get eaten on the way down to the gym, since there are enough mals out there who can remember dates and know there's going to be a buffet laid out for them along the stairs and corridors.

The other thing about El's voice that's more obvious on a rereading: she's bright and quick on the uptake, and when she puts two and two together and realizes what's going on she explains it for people like the reader who might be slower, but she isn't always right. If you've already read the whole trilogy you'll notice several places where her clear, logical, and authoritative explanations turn out to be wrong in light of later events.

1/21 Tadashi Agi (story) and Shu Okimoto (art), The Drops of God: Volume 12

What kind of wine pairs well with Korean food?

1/16 Naomi Novik, A Deadly Education

Rereading this after having read the whole Scholomance trilogy, it's interesting to see some of the hints about events that came later. Yes, it's pretty clear that the whole trajectory was well planned. One of the most striking parts is the main character's emotional trajectory: her real anger and bitterness at the realization that she's too ethical a person to make the sensible practical choices that she'd always assumed she'd make, like running away from a monster and letting the other people it's trying to eat fend for themselves, or like joining a magical enclave where she can live the rest of her life in safety and comfort.

1/15 Suzy McKee Charnas, The Vampire Tapestry

The vampire doesn't have fangs, can't turn into a bat, and doesn't wear an opera cape, even when he's attending a performance of Tosca at Santa Fe Opera. (Being a predator himself, he naturally sympathizes with Scarpia.) He's Dr. Edward Weyland, or at least that's what he's calling himself in his current incarnation: hiding in plain sight as a distinguished anthropologist, a professor first at a small liberal arts college in upstate New York and later at the University of New Mexico. As he explains in response to a question at a public lecture, pretending to be speaking hypothetically, he's just as much the product of evolution as his prey is, with nothing supernatural about him, although perhaps centuries ago, in a more credulous age, he might have believed some of the superstitions too. He tells himself that he thinks of humans only as meals, which may not be quite as true as he'd like.

The Vampire Tapestry is a series of vignettes. At first it seems more like a collection of linked stories than like a novel, but it does cohere. It's one of the best vampire novels of the 20th century.

1/13 Stephen Budiansky, Journey to the Edge of Reason: The Life of Kurt Gödel

A biography, not an exposition of Gödel's work. It does explain why Gödel's incompleteness theorems are important, and what things like the continuum hypothesis are, and even gives a sketch of the proof of Gödel's first incompleteness theorem. Just a sketch, though. For a real understanding you'll want Hofstadter's Gödel, Escher, Bach, or Nagel and Newman's Gödel's Proof, or, if you're feeling more ambitious, a textbook like Enderton's A Mathematical Introduction to Logic.

This book includes Gödel's childhood in Brünn (now Brno), his education in Vienna and membership in the Vienna Circle, his complicated marriage, the Nazi takeover of Austria and Gödel's subsequent move to Princeton, his friendships with Albert Einstein, Oskar Morgenstern, and John von Neumann, the evolution of his philosophical ideas including his mathematical Platonism. The famous anecdote about Gödel getting overly excited during his US naturalization hearing is true in essence, although embellished versions are sometimes told. (He thought he had found a flaw in the constitution that would make it possible for somebody to become a dictator and set up a Fascist regime, and wanted to tell the judge about it.) This book includes Morgenstern's first-hand report of the incident.

The account is bookended by tragedies: at the beginning, the disintegration of the country of Gödel's birth, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and at the end, his final descent into isolation and paranoia and his death in 1978 from self-inflicted starvation.

1/13 Tadashi Agi (story) and Shu Okimoto (art), The Drops of God: Volume 11

Domaine du Pegau Châteauneuf-du-Pape Cuvée Da Capo, 2000.

1/7 Mary Roach, Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law

The book begins by describing some pre-modern legal cases where animals were literally put on trial, but that's not the main focus of the book. It's basically about conflict between humans and non-humans: leopard attacks in North Bengal, bears in Estes Park, danger trees in British Columbia, invasive predators in New Zealand.

As with all of Mary Roach's books, this one is very funny, very digressive, and also informative. It gradually builds toward asking what a better model is for coexistence between humans and the rest of the world.

1/2 Ngaio Marsh, A Grave Mistake

One of the later Inspector Alleyn books, published 1978. That's early enough that the book mentions a translatlantic crossing on the Queen Elizabeth 2, and late enough that there's another transatlantic crossing on the Concorde.

1/1 Tadashi Agi (story) and Shu Okimoto (art), The Drops of God: Volume 10

In which the clue to the third wine is read from Yutaka Kanzaki's will. It doesn't sound like the description of a wine at all, just a small childhood story, but Shizuku and Isssei are starting on the quest.

Matt Austern