What I read in 2008

12/28 Carl Hiaasen, Basket Case

One of the cover blurbs for this book describes Hiaasen's form as the “comic crime novel.” Not really false, but at best incomplete. The humor is real, but so is the outrage and near despair. His books are about corruption and greed, about powerful people and institutions who casually spread destruction for profit. What keeps the books from being unbearably bleak, what does in fact make them funny, is the author's compassion for the ordinary losers of the world.

Hiaasen is a novelist and a journalist, and this is is book about (among other things) the death of the American newspaper industry. He doesn't think it's death by natural causes.

12/27 Alexander Stepanov and Paul McJones, Elements of Programming (11/25 draft)

Not the most recent draft, but the most recent one that I've finished.

12/20 Gene Wolfe, Return to the Whorl

There's an explanation of sorts of the secret of the inhumi—but then, it was hinted at throughout this book and the last, so perhaps the narrator is deceiving himself about how well he was trying to keep his promise not to reveal it. And there's an explanation of sorts of the narrator's identity—but then, it's never stated outright, only implied. The narrator not only refuses to accept the implied explanation, but refuses even to ask the seemingly obvious questions that would lead to it. It's hard to avoid thinking, as another character explicitly tells the narrator, that this is another place where he's deceiving himself. But once you've reached that conclusion, other questions and other possibilities emerge… I suppose I shouldn't expect to understand a Gene Wolfe book fully on first reading.

12/11 John Maynard Keynes, The Economic Consequences of the Peace

This was Keynes's first book, written in 1919. Keynes was a member of the British delegation at the Paris Peace Conference. He resigned, and wrote this book, when he realized what the Treaty of Versailles would be: a “Carthaginian Peace” that would make another war inevitable.

This book is most famous now for its conclusion: “If we aim deliberately at the impoverishment of Central Europe, vengeance, I dare predict, will not limp. Nothing can then delay for very long that final civil war between the forces of Reaction and the despairing convulsions of Revolution, before which the horrors of the late German war will fade into nothing.” Backing up that sadly accurate prediction is the detailed analysis: how much coal and iron ore is produced, and where; the economic role of the ceded territories; what reparations was Germany required to pay and on what schedule, and how it compared to total German assets. It may sound dry, but it's not, partly because nowadays it's impossible to read this book without a sense of doom, partly because Keynes wrote this book from a clear sense of moral outrage, and partly just because Keynes was a very good writer.

Keynes participated in the discussions at a high level, and one of the most memorable parts of this book is his character study of Lloyd George, Clemenceau, and Wilson, in the context of discussing the day to day process by which an armistice that was to be based on the Fourteen Points turned into something so very different. Keynes doesn't portray any of these people as villains, but the chapters on the negotiations come across with the inevitablity of tragedy.

11/25 Amy Tan, The Bonesetter's Daughter

The book is better than the opera.

11/20 Tom Vanderbilt, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us)

Psychology of driving. It gets into traffic engineering, but that's not the main focus.

11/17 Alan Weisman, The World Without Us

We know what happens when, for one reason or another, a place is off limits to humans for years or decades: we've seen it in the former luxury resort of Varosha, in the Korean DMZ, in the towns around Chernobyl. What would happen to the rest of the human world if everything were abandoned? How long would it take for New York to crumble? (Sooner than you might think.) How long would it take for intensively farmed land to turn back into healthy forests? (Longer than you might think.) The descriptions of wildlife slowly taking over what used to be our world, the physical details of transformation, are oddly comforting.

It's not long before the tone of the book shifts, and the question becomes more pointed: not so much the thought experiment of what would happen to our creations without us, but of how long it would take the world to recover from what we have done to it. Eventually it would; life goes on. As one of the experts the author talked to said, “if the planet can recover from the Permian, it can recover from the human.”

It would be nice, though, if there were a way for the world to recover without our species having to go extinct, wouldn't it?

11/11 John Garth, Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth

Tolkien famously denied that The Lord of the Rings was a World War II allegory, reminding critics about the earlier war that he had fought in: “One has indeed personally to come under the shadow of war to feel its oppression; but as the years go by it seems now often forgotten that to be caught in youth by 1914 was no less hideous an experience than to be involved in 1939 and the following years. By 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead.”

Tolkien and the Great War has a postscript trying, with only partial success, to connect Tolkien's World War I experience with themes in his fiction. For the most part, though, it's an intellectual biography of the young Tolkien, from about 1911 through 1919. (With an epilogue covering the last 54 years of Tolkien's life.) It's an important time partly for the obvious reason suggested by the book's title, and partly because that's when we saw the tentative beginnings of Tolkien's “legendarium”: the first work on the Qenya (sic) lexicon, and his early poem ‘The Voyage of Éarendel the Evening Star’ (inspired by a line from the 8th century Anglo-Saxon poet Cynewulf), are both from 1914. One of Tolkien's friends, G. B. Smith, asked him what the poem was really about. Tolkien's response: “I don't know. I'll try to find out.” By 1919 he had.

11/5 Barbara Tuchman, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century

“Calamitous” isn't too strong a word: Church schism (this was the century of the dueling Popes), peasant and bourgeois rebellions brutally suppressed by the nobles, weak (and sometimes clinically insane) kings, the start of the Hundred Years' War (stupid, pointless, and enormously destructive wars were not a 20th century invention), lawless “free companies” that indiscriminately acted as mercenaries and brigands, and of course the Black Death.

This book is loosely organized around the life of Enguerrand de Coucy (1340–1397). The book isn't a biography (which probably wouldn't have been that interesting), and it has a broad scope, but Coucy's life establishes the chronology and the structure and guides the choice of which subjects to emphasize. One way to think about this book is that it gives the social, intellectual, and political/military background that lets you understand what a life like Coucy's would have been like.

The book mainly focuses on France (Coucy was a French noble) and to a lesser extent England (at one point, despite the war, Coucy was also the Earl of Bedford and the English king's son in law), but the 14th century nobility was an international caste. Coucy's life was touched by events in what we now call Italy, Germany, Switzerland, Spain, the Balkans, and further places.

Tuchman writes that the medieval view of history didn't include a belief that fundamental change was possible. I wonder if that was completely true. After all, Petrarch was a 14th century intellectual, and he's the one who coined the phrase “the dark ages.” Some people who lived then, at any rate, seemed to think they were living in a time that was different from the past. And with the benefit of hindsight, it seems like a time of transition: the beginnings of nation-states in place of the old system of individual vassalage, the first use of firearms in war, the growing military obsolescence of knightly weapons and tactics and of the chivalric ideal as a whole, the roots of the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople, the Wars of the Roses, and the Protestant movement.

10/25 Thomas H. Cormen, Charles E. Leiserson, Ronald L. Rivest, Clifford Stein, Introduction to Algorithms (Second Edition)

Not as detailed as Knuth (or as hard to read), but more comprehensive: unlike the first three volumes of Knuth, it includes chapters on dynamic programming, graph algorithms, linear programming, computational geometry, and NP-completeness. It's a good balance between breadth and rigor.

10/3 Gene Wolfe, In Green's Jungles

Identity is even more complicated in this book than in On Blue's Waters.

9/22 Charles Stross, Saturn's Children

Charlie says that this was his Heinlein homage—late Heinlein, that is. And indeed this book has more than a passing resemblance to Friday, and the ending is pure Heinlein.

Not that Heinlein could have written this book. Heinlein was a bit of a speciesist, and he would never have written a book set a couple centuries after the extinction of homo sapiens (and all other eukaryotic life). And Heinlein would never have accepted the physics and economics of space flight that Charlie described in his blog, and that are illustrated in this book with the months and years of tedious and miserable travel in conditions that are only survivable for the main character because she's a lot tougher than the humans who built her kind. You want to go to Neptune? OK, but you'll have to spend a decade crammed in a shipping crate packed in gel and sitting on top of a nuclear reactor, and unless you're feeling extravagant you'll probably be wise to cut your limbs off and get new ones at the other end. “Our Creators were clearly insane. Sending canned primates to Mars was never going to end happily. But theirs was a glorious madness! They actually thought they were going to the stars.

Unsurprisingly, the concerns in this book are ones that Charlie has written about in other books. One way to think about this book is that it's what what Manfred Macx warned about in Accelerando: it's what might have happened if the “Lobsters” uploading lawsuit had gone differently. As one character in this book says, “After we came along, they stopped looking at the big picture. And the critical part of the picture that they should have looked at was—who is a person?” And then lurking beyond that question is the one that Heinlein would never have asked, because he thought he knew what human nature was and he thought it was eternal and unchangeable, the question that Huxley thought we should be asking instead of the utilitarian question of how we should make the greatest number happy: what should our ultimate purpose be? If we are malleable, what should we make of ourselves?

9/16 Gene Wolfe, On Blue's Waters

The first volume of The Book of the Short Sun.

Gene Wolfe famously said of The Book of the New Sun that although he included everything you needed to understand the book, he didn't repeat any clues. It's a work that has to be read carefully. The Book of the Short Sun also seems like a book that has to be read carefully. There are several levels of distancing in this book: the story it tells, the circumstances under which the narrator wrote it, the audience it was written for, the circumstances under which it was read and annotated. There are mistakes, some corrected by later passages or annotations, others not. Several times, the narrator tells his readers that much of what he's written was lies.

9/5 Peter Watts, βehemoth: Seppuku

Actually, it turns out that I didn't need to read the two halves of βehemoth separately. It was split into two volumes when it was originally published, but Peter Watts released it under a Creative Commons license and put it up on his site as a single book, as it was written.

8/30 Terry Pratchett, Interesting Times


8/30 G. K. Chesterton, The Napoleon of Notting Hill

This book was written around the same time as The Man Who Was Thursday, and it shows. Some of Adam Wayne's more flamboyant proclamations (“I say here, and I know well what I speak of, there were never any necessary wars but the religious wars. There were never any just wars but the religious wars. There were never any humane wars but the religious wars. For these men were fighting for something that claimed, at least, to be the happiness of a man, the virtue of a man.”) could just as easily have come from Gabriel Syme. Both books are a mixture of the serious and the comic, with, somewhere in the middle, a taste for paradox.

I recently read a terrific Adam Gopnik piece about Chesterton in The New Yorker, which in part was about the uncomfortable fact that Chesterton was a great writer, someone who is still deservedly read for pleasure today, who was also a hard core reactionary, a vigorous antisemite, and a supporter of at least the Spanish version of fascism. Gopnik's observation was that the admirable and despicable aspects of Chesterton's writing were very closely linked, so closely that you can't really separate them. People are complicated and individual and not always rational, and it wouldn't necessarily be a good thing if they always were—as Chesterton himself realized.

As Gopnik says, “Chesterton is the great critic of its homogenization, the leveling of difference in the pursuit of cash. He is the grandfather of Slow Food, of local eating, of real ale, the first strong mind that saw something evil in the leveling of little pleasures.” That's right. That's essentially what The Napoleon of Notting Hill is all about, and it's one of the core impulses, for good and for ill, behind a lot of Chesterton.

8/30 Philip Roth, American Pastoral

Oddly enough, this is the first Roth I've read. I think that's largely because my father told me about Portnoy's Complaint when I was growing up, and it sounded to me like a gimmick book, and that prejudice made me disinclined to take anything of Roth's seriously. I also had this sense that I should file Roth along with writers like Updike and Bellow, i.e., to put it uncharitably, provincial male midcentury genre writers whose books were all about writers and adultery.

I'd also heard about Zuckerman, and he also sounded like a gimmick. In American Pastoral, though, the conceit worked; the long Zuckerman introduction, which gradually faded into the main text, was essential to creating the mood of this book. I liked the book much more than I'd expected to.

8/25 Terry Pratchett, Soul Music

Why doesn't the Buddy Holly joke go anywhere?

8/17 Elizabeth Pisani, The Wisdom of Whores: Bureaucrats, Brothels, and the Business of AIDS

A tell-all book by a (former?) UNAIDS epidemiologist.

Unsurprising surprise: much of the world's AIDS prevention work is wasted and ineffective, partly because of political interference by the US religious right and others who see this as a fight against sin rather than an attempt to reduce the frequency of transmission of a virus, partly because of structural issues of governance that ensure inefficiency, and partly because some of the bedrock principles of AIDS prevention that emerged from activism in countries like the US and UK, principles like peer counseling and “everyone is at risk,” are irrelevant or worse in other parts of the world.

The book spends more time in Indonesia than anywhere else, since that's where the author spent much of her career, but it tries to give a global picture.

8/13 N. A. M. Rodger, The Command of the Ocean: A Naval History of Britain, 1649-1815

The more English history you know, the more you'll get out of this book. My knowledge is only OK. Certainly the parts of the book that I found most interesting were the ones dealing with events that I already knew a bit about—the Restoration, the Glorious Revolution (which the author regards as little more than a successful Dutch invasion), the American Revolution (which I mostly knew about from the American point of view), and, especially, the Napoleonic Wars, by the end of which Britain was unquestionably the world's dominant naval power.

The author doesn't think much of Napoleon as a naval strategist. I've tended to take at face value Napoleon's 1804 claim that “Let us be masters of the Straits for but six hours, and we shall be masters of the world,” but this book makes a persuasive argument that Napoleon's naval plans were completely divorced from reality, that there was never any serious hope of an invasion, and that Napoleon spent most of the war giving confused, impossible, and vacillating orders to his fleets. Of course, one of the reasons it doesn't seem like that to us today is that it didn't seem like that to the English at the time.

Fears and fantasies aside, the reality was dramatic enough! It's still sometimes hard to believe that someone like Nelson, for example, could have existed outside fiction.

In part this is a book about technological progress—occasionally in the form of dramatic new inventions, like the gunlock or copper-clad hulls, more often in the form of slow empirical refinement. More importantly, it's a book about developing the social, economic, and institutional structures that made it possible for a navy to project power on a global scale.

8/13 Peter Watts, βehemoth: β-Max

Half of the sequel to Maelstrom.

8/4 Benjamin Wallace, The Billionaire's Vinegar: The Mystery of the World's Most Expensive Bottle of Wine

I can't imagine ever paying £105,000 for a bottle of wine, no matter how rich I was. Someone did, though! It was supposedly a 1787 Lafite, and was supposedly once owned by Thomas Jefferson. It turned out to be a bad purchase.

What the author hints at from the very beginning, but doesn't flatly say until at least halfway through the book, is that this wine, and probably many other extremely old and rare wines sold and “discovered” by the same person, were fakes. There hasn't been a confession, so we may never know the exact details of the frauds. There were probably several different techniques, some crude, others sophisticated. Some of the fakes seem incredibly crude in retrospect, and probably succeeded for so many years only because most people don't look for fraud and most people see what they want to.

What's most interesting is what this says about taste. A number of wine experts, including people like Robert Parker and Jancis Robinson, tasted bottles that were almost certainly fakes. In some cases they said the wines were exceptional. The most obvious explanation is that we taste with our eyes and minds, not just our tongues and noses, and that not even a great critic is completely immune from tasting what they expect. That's probably at least part of it. But there's another equally interesting possibility: what if Parker was right, and the fakes that he thought were great wines really were great wines? What if there really is a shortcut to manufacturing something that tastes like a mature first growth Bordeaux from a great vintage? Are we drinking inferior wines because of sentimental ideas about authenticity?

7/27 Phil & Kaja Foglio, Girl Genius Book 7: Agatha Heterodyne and the Voice of the Castle

7/26 Peter Watts, Maelstrom

Peter Watts's Web site has a blurb of sorts from James Nicoll: “Whenever I find my will to live becoming too strong, I read Peter Watts.” Not quite fair, but there's enough truth there for it to be funny. One thing that's unsettling about Watts's books (all of them that I've read, anyway) is that he just doesn't write pleasant characters. Even more unsettling, though, is that whether Watts is writing about biochemistry, or software, or romance, his perspective is thoroughly evolutionary. That may not seem so very unsettling, but it is. We are products of evolution, but that doesn't mean we're used to thinking of it as the primary way of looking at everything in the world. In Watts's books humans are not what we would like to think we are, and the universe is not as comfortable a place as we might hope. I don't think the perspective in these books is the full truth, but it's hard to dismiss it as completely wrong.

7/13 Dan Ariely, Predictably Irrational

A book about behavioral economics: psychological experiments to learn how people actually make economic decisions, as opposed to how idealized “homo economicus” behaves in naïve models. When Ariely came to speak at Google, for example, he gave a demonstration of the endowment effect using free copies of this book. It wasn't as dramatic a demonstration as the Duke basketball ticket experiment, but seeing it right in front of our eyes was still pretty dramatic.

I think it's fair to say that behavioral economics is marginal from the point of view of the economics profession. I've seen one economist question whether these results have any relevance to human behavior outside the lab, and another say that the most important fact about human behavior is that “people respond to incentives,” and that that's what economics is all about. Several times in this book Ariely says that economics should change to take these sorts of experimental results into account. He says a bit about what kinds of changes in societal policy he'd like to see, but not much about what kind of changes in the discipline of economics he's thinking of. Which parts of the body of theory need to be revised? What would a more modern textbook look like? How would this affect the kind of papers that economists publish? Still, I'm pretty sure that something other than dismissal is called for. A discipline that's supposed to be a science that describes one aspect of human behavior ought to be more interested in studying human behavior.

I don't know if Ariely would go along with this, but one change I'd like to see is for economists to stop using the word “rational” to describe their simplified model of the way people act. I realize that simplified models are necessary for any discipline, and I also realize that every discipline has its own jargon; words like “force” and “resistance” and “memory” don't have the same meanings as technical language that they do in everyday life. Still, it's different when you're using a word whose ordinary meaning is value laden, and when you're talking about people. When you're talking about people it's always easy to slide between is and ought, between description and judgment, and using value laden language makes this easy mistake even easier. It's important to be clear about whether we're saying that we think we have an accurate model of human behavior, or that we're deliberately using a simplified model as a first approximation, or that this is how people should behave, or that society ought to be organized under the assumption that people behave this way and that if people fail to fit the model, so much the worse for them.

7/9 John Crowley, Novelties & Souvenirs: Collected Short Fiction

A while back, Janet and I were talking about alternate history stories. Janet wondered why there seemed to be so few alternate history stories that focused on World War I. My speculation was that the most obvious alternate world would be one in which there was no Great War, or at least where the war ended quickly—it's hard to avoid imagining a world that was spared a disaster so great, so unnecessary and contingent. But a story like that would seem less like “what if” than like wishful thinking. So Janet told me that I needed to read John Crowley's “Great Work of Time.” She was right.

6/30 Peter Watts, Starfish

I think this is Watts's first novel. It does have its rough spots: there are characters and subplots that seem like they're going to be important but just end up fizzling out. It's still compelling, and it's easy to see the same concerns in this book that show up in Blindsight.

6/19 Tobias Buckell, Crystal Rain

6/13 Alan Furst, The Spies of Warsaw

As Alan Furst said when he came to speak at Google, this is a novel about someone who warned about a terrible disaster and wasn't believed. We all know the end of the story.

Furst talked a bit about why he sets all of his books in more or less the same period, the years leading up to World War II. A question he didn't discuss, and it wasn't until some time after the talk that I quite managed to formulate (too late to actually ask him), was why he chooses to write his novels about spies. Do spies actually matter? There was one group of spies in Warsaw in the 30s who mattered very much: Marian Rejewski and the rest of the Polish Cipher Bureau, who made the initial mathematical breakthroughs that enabled the work at Bletchley Park. But this book isn't about that kind of spy.

6/11 Philip Reeve, A Darkling Plain

Not quite Götterdämmerung, but definitely an operatic end to the tetrology. And is it just a coincidence that the sinister ancient superweapon is called Odin?

6/3 Philip Reeve, Infernal Devices

This series is an odd mixture. There's some broad humor, and parts of the world don't really hang together unless you think of them as jokes, unless you step outside the story and see the author winking at you. Then there's just the sheer joy of invention. Cities on wheels, eating each other! Robot zombie assassins! Robot zombie birds! Dirigible air fleets! Boy pirates with submarines! But you're never far from being reminded about much darker things, like the slaves in the cities' engine rooms, or the betrayals that shape the main characters' lives, or the ruined world that the cities roam through, or, in the distant past, the Sixty Minutes War that destroyed the American Empire and Greater China and the rest of ancient civilization.

Nobody told the characters that the world they live in is a joke. In the very first book we meet someone who had an absolutely horrible experience as a child and was left badly scarred in both the literal and figurative sense. That character is twenty years older in this book—still unhappy, despite a seemingly stable life, still scarred, still someone that most other people recoil from, largely for good reasons. Not everyone gets a happy ending.

5/28 Terry Pratchett, Sourcery

5/25 Cory Doctorow, Little Brother

Cory's first YA book. In large part this is a book about what the US might become if there's another big terrorist attack, if we continue to have leaders who confuse safety with repression, or (less charitably, maybe more accurately) if we continue to have leaders who stoke fear as an excuse for repression. Partly it's a book about resistance, and partly, oddly, a tutorial on security-related topics: cryptography, anonymous routers, webs of trust, even LARP protocols. One summary might be that it's a book about why and how to resist surveillance.

It's a frightening book in parts—probably not as frightening as the reality would be. Ultimately it's a patriotic and optimistic book. I hope the optimism is justified. Perhaps if enough people read this book it'll help make sure it won't come true.

5/12 L. Timmel Duchamp, Alanya to Alanya

In some ways this book reminded me of Suzy Charnas's Holdfast books: how can the oppressed overthrow an intolerable system of oppression without ceasing to be human themselves? Perhaps it's not too surprising that this is reminiscent of the Holdfast books: it too is part of the "grand conversation" of feminist science fiction, and it was written not too long after Walk to the End of the World.

This book has a 21st century publication date, and I wouldn't have guessed it was written so long ago if I hadn't known; it seemed to me that this book was written with the knowledge of the ways in which the US changed after 9/11. I know that the book was updated over the decades since it was first written, but there's also the depressing possibility that Timmi just got the paranoia and authoritarianism right, without the benefit of future knowledge. [Update: yup. I asked Timmi, and all the rewriting was done before 2001.]

Odd little coincidence that distracted me a bit while I was reading this book: the most despicable of several despicable characters in this book has the same name as a rather famous theoretical computer scientist.

5/10 Iain M. Banks, Matter

A new Culture book!

5/7 Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

Somehow I managed to graduate from high school without having read this book. Well, now I have. Yes, it does deserve its reputation.

4/26 The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke

4/22 Robert Charles Wilson, Axis

4/19 Charles Stross, Accelerando

I own a paper copy of this book, but I read it on my PDA. Given the subject of this book, it seemed more appropriate.

3/20 Donald Knuth, The Art of Computer Programming. Volume 1, Fundamental Algorithms (third edition)

Incomplete (as of 2008 only half the book has been written), badly outdated in parts, hard to read, and indispensable. Everyone with a serious interest in computers needs to read this.

3/12 Elizabeth Lynn, A Different Light

3/1 F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

2/29 Gary Chartrand, Introductory Graph Theory

2/28 Terry Pratchett, Guards! Guards!

2/23 Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan

There are some useful insights in this book, but not enough to justify the book's length. It's repetitive and padded, and should have been half the length. It's useful to be reminded that not every probability distribution is a gaussian, to see some of the implications of power law distributions spelled out, and to see a summary of some of the recent psychological research into cognitive biases, but none of this is particularly earthshaking stuff.

This book is seriously marred by the author's tendency to use insult as a substitute for argument. Toward the end, astonishingly, he writes that “An ad hominem attack against an intellectual, not against an idea, is highly flattering. It indicates that the person does not have anything intelligent to say about your message.” Did he read his own book? He should have listened to his own advice, and shouldn't have been so eager to sneer at everyone else for being “pompous,” or “nerds,” or the perpetrator of an “intellectual fraud,” or “narrow-minded,” or “sterile” or “dull.”

2/18 Matthew Klein, Con Ed

A novel about con men and gangsters and venture capitalists, set in Palo Alto at the height of the dotcom bubble.

2/15 Henry Fielding, The History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews, and his friend Mr. Abraham Adams

I knew that Fielding had written a satire on Pamela. What I hadn't realized was that he'd written two different satirical responses to Pamela, just a year apart, and that Joseph Andrews was one of them. Maybe someday I should read Pamela.

One thing that occurred to me is that Joseph Andrews probably couldn't have existed if modern copyright laws, and modern interpretations of those laws, had existed in the mid 18th century. Some of the major characters in Joseph Andrews are taken directly from someone else's book, published just a few years earlier. If today we think that fanfic is legally dubious at best, it's hard to see why this wouldn't have been as well.

2/8 Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto

This is a short book. It's basic message is summed up in the first seven words of the book, repeated several times throughout and, at least in this edition, printed right on the front cover: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Food, that is, as opposed to edible foodlike industrial products.

A big part of this book is an attack on what Pollan calls nutritionism: essentially, the idea that you should think of eating in terms of getting the right balance of a small number of chemicals.

2/4 G. K. Chesterton, The Club of Queer Trades

1/30 George Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London

One of the blurbs on the back of the book described this as a novel. Is it one? The text itself suggests no such thing. It reads more like an extended essay, partly personal history and partly discussion. The second half seems like an expanded version of Orwell's “The Spike,” which was published as an essay.

The book is characteristically Orwell: a narrative showing exactly what extreme poverty means from moment by moment, seemingly detached at times but never truly detached because of the personal involvement, followed by a brief discussion of the moral implications—hardly more than a question like “why does this happen?,” or “who does this benefit?,” but all the more devastating for its brevity. No extended argument is necessary because you realize, reading the concluding discussion, that everything you've been reading has been the supporting argument.

Many of the details have changed in the 75 years since this was written, but I suspect that many of the essentials are the same.

1/27 Joss Whedon, Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Eight, Volume 1: The Long Way Home

1/26 Donald E. Knuth, The Stanford GraphBase: A Platform for Combinatorial Computing

Graph algorithms. Most of the book consists of graph generators, some (e.g. GB_GATES) quite whimsical. The section that I got the most out of was the one on minimum spanning tree algorithms, MILES_SPAN. I was especially interested in the Cheriton-Tarjan-Karp algorithm.

1/14 Terry Pratchett, Hogfather

1/12 Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace (tr. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky)

This is the fourth or fifth time I've read War and Peace. (Always in translation, alas; even when I was in college my Russian was never good enough to read Война и мир.) The Pevear and Volokhonsky translation came out last year, and has gotten glowing reviews.

I imagine I'm like most modern readers in that I identify more with Pierre than with any other character. This time, more than on previous readings, I noticed the way that he exemplified the theme of freedom and necessity that becomes so important in the epilogue. I was admiring the depiction of Pierre's feeling about his marriage to Hélène, his perception that, desirable or not, it was inevitable and necessary. Most of the important decisions in Pierre's life are similar: he doesn't always know why he does them, he isn't always sure whether they're for the best, but he feels they could not be otherwise. He doesn't feel more free after his epiphany, but his attitude about necessity becomes different.

I imagine I'm also like most modern readers in finding the epilogue disturbing and somewhat dispiriting. The commentary I've read, though, tends to focus on Natasha. She doesn't disturb me; I'm not Denisov, and I don't regret that she has grown up. Her development as a character is (leaving aside for the moment the chamber of horrors that is 19th century gender roles) entirely natural. It's Pierre that I find disturbing: not just because of the disaster that Tolstoy and his readers know is coming, but also that the Pierre who gets into a violent argument with Nikolai seems hardly different from the Pierre who made a fool of himself at Anna Pavlovna's salon in the beginning of the book. Has he really learned anything after all?

Matt Austern