What I read in 2010

12/18 Simon Schama, Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution

The trouble with history is that it doesn't come packaged in discrete chunks. It's not clear when a book about the French Revolution should begin, or when it should end. If you're picking a discrete event as the start of the French Revolution, I suppose everyone would say it happened in 1789. But should you pick the summoning of the Estates-General, or the Tennis Court Oath, or Bastille Day, or something else? You might also reasonably pick the establishment of a constitutional monarchy (1791), or the fall of the monarchy (1792).

It's even less clear where the story should end. This book basically ends with the guillotining of Robespierre, i.e. the end of the extreme Jacobin period of the French Revolution. That's not what I had expected when I started reading it. I had imagined that the book would extend from the crisis of the old regime up through the Napoleonic era and the decades of world war. But perhaps it's conventional to treat the Revolutionary era and the Imperial era as distinct things; it's as sensible a categorization as any. Which probably means I need to find a good single-volume history of the Napoleonic era somewhere.

This book is odd in that it's written as an old-fashioned narrative history (the word “chronicle” has very old-fashioned connotations), but it's written with the existence of modern scholarship in mind, and in places it's written in response to earlier historical works. I might well have missed a lot of what the author was saying, since I'm not familiar with the earlier literature — I was mostly reading it on the surface level, a story of what happened. Still, it was clear that the book had a definite point of view. This version of the story emphasizes the social continuity between the old regime and the revolutionary era, the ways in which some of the dramatic transition to economic modernity began in the age of Louis XVI. It also emphasizes the way in which the Revolution, from the beginning, was a story of political violence — in some cases with violence as the primary political goal.

Citizens is framed with a prologue and an epilogue focusing on two extraordinary characters, both survivors in their own very different ways: Lafayette and Talleyrand. Schama obviously finds Talleyrand entertaining. So do I. I probably need to find a biography of him, too.

12/8 G. K. Chesterton, The Scandal of Father Brown

12/5 Stieg Larsson, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest (tr. Reg Keeland)

If this book is anywhere close to accurate, the Swedish criminal justice system is very different from the American one.

11/22 Mary Roach, Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife

Stiff is about what happens to our bodies when we die. This book is sort of a companion: it's about attempts to find some other kind of answer to the question of what happens when we die. We meet mediums, and ghost hunters, and scholars who interview kids to find evidence that they're reincarnations of someone else, and scientists who try to weigh souls, and more. It's ultimately not as informative as Stiff — how could it be, when the subject of this book doesn't necessarily exist — but just as entertaining.

11/20 G. K. Chesterton, The Secret of Father Brown

11/18 Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory

This isn't a history of World War I, but, as the title suggests, a study of the way the War was experienced in literature — experienced as tragedy, as irony, as myth, as theatre. This included pre-war poets like Thomas Hardy and A. E. Housman, whose works were read in the trenches, and wartime writers like Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, Isaac Rosenberg, and Robert Graves, and later writers who knew the War only as history and literature. Mailer and Pynchon and Heller and Waugh were writing about the Second World War, not the First, but their works have Great War roots. Some of the ways that we look at the world now are fairly recent despite their familiarity, and date specifically to the experiences of the War.

11/15 Iain M. Banks, Surface Detail

The latest Culture book. As one would expect, it's both horrifying and fun — sometimes simultaneously. The very last word of the book manages to be surprising and entertaining on its own. (No, I won't say more than that.)

Banks is obviously fascinated by games, which show up again and again in his books. Both this book and The Steep Approach to Garbadale (which I read earlier this year) include a financial empire originally based on a game. He's also obviously getting interested in virtual worlds, simulations real enough to be worlds, questioning how we know that the Real is any such thing. That was a sort of throwaway idea in The Algebraist, not there for any obvious reason except that the author was interested in it. This is the book where that whole line of thought becomes central.

11/9 Stieg Larsson, The Girl Who Played with Fire (tr. Reg Keeland)

The second book of the Millennium Trilogy, and the further adventures of the same characters. I liked it — it worked as a thriller just as well as the first book. The stuff about Fermat's Last Theorem grated on me, though, since it was somewhere between sloppy and outright wrong. (Hint: it's not all that hard to prove that x3 + y3 = z3 has no nontrivial solutions in natural numbers.)

11/6 Edmond Rostand, Cyrano de Bergerac (tr. Gladys Thomas and Mary F. Guillemard)

I last read this in junior high school, I think, and I've never seen it performed. I reread it in preparation for the San Francisco Opera's performance of Alfano's opera.

10/28 G. K. Chesterton, The Incredulity of Father Brown

10/19 Felix Gilman, The Half-Made World

I've seen this described as a steampunk reimagining of the Wild West, but I'm not sure I'd go along with that. It does have a slight steampunkish feel, and also a slight Great War feel, and a tinge of horror, but it's weirder and more original than that makes it sound. The Wild West part I'd certainly go along with. The West of this world isn't our West in either geography or history, but it's clear that we're supposed to be reminded of it. One of the things this book does is literalize the metaphors of the Western, sometimes in supernatural ways.

Alas, I didn't realize before I finished this book that it was the first in a duology. It ended so abruptly that I wondered if I was missing some text.

10/16 Jacob S. Hacker & Paul Pierson, Winner-Take-All Politics

In the years since the mid 1970s, American income inequality has become extraordinarily skewed. The top 0.01% of the country is now about ten times richer than it was then — this tiny group now has more than 6% of total national income. There are various ways to present the numbers, but the bottom line is pretty simple: the economy of the last few decades has been very good for the top 1% of the population, even better for rarified groups within that top 1%, not too shabby for the top 10% as a whole, and mediocre for 90% of the country.

What happened? The first part of this book examines, and rejects, a lot of the popular answers. We're not talking about big gains for movie stars or sports stars, because that's not where the money is going. We're not talking about inevitable changes caused by technology or globalization, because this is a specifically American phenomenon. We're not talking about an increasing education premium, because that doesn't explain the shape of the distribution changes. The authors propose a much simpler explanation: we are more unequal than we were 35 years ago because of government policy. This may seem so simple that it can't be right, but the authors make a persuasive case. They point to specific policies and explain the effects those policies had.

The next question, of course: if this is actually a valid answer, how can it be in a democracy that we're getting policies that hurt 90% of the people? That's what the bulk of the book is about; as the title suggests, it's more a book about politics than economics. The authors coin two useful terms: “drift” (programmers will recognize it as something like “bit rot”), which is what happens when circumstances change but legislative change is blocked, and “politics of organized combat,” a reminder that elections only indirectly influence policy decisions. Elections determine (in part) who sits down to make decisions, but they don't determine what decision gets made, or even what questions will be asked and what options will be considered. Influencing the decision-making process requires sustained attention, money, and above all organization. Starting in the 70s we've seen big changes in which institutions have that degree of money and attention and organization.

This is all very reminiscent of Galbraith's analysis of countervailing power — the difference being that Galbraith was writing in the 1950s, when countervailing power was more a reality than it is today.

10/11 Stieg Larsson, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (tr. Reg Keeland)

Everyone else is reading this now, so I figured I might as well too. Yes, it is a good thriller. The Swedish title is apparently Män som hatar kvinnor (“Men Who Hate Women”), which fits the book better.

10/6 Mary Roach, Stiff

The subtitle is “The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers.” Jessica Mitford makes a brief appearance (how could she not?), but this isn't a 21st century version of The American Way of Death. It's a book about all of the strange things that can happen to dead bodies: dissection, surgical training, embalming, organ donation, auto safety research, cremation,... And then the really strange stuff. Actually, there's a fair amount of strange stuff in all the chapters: the author loves stories and loves digressions. This is a really funny book.

10/2 Fumi Yoshinaga, Ōoku: The Inner Chambers (vol. 2) (tr. Akemi Wegmüller)

Not a continuation of the story in volume 1. This is also a story of a young man entering the Ōoku, but it's set decades earlier, soon after the plague began, while society is still adapting. It's sort of an origin story.

9/25 Josephine Tey, Brat Farrar

I read this book on Jo Walton's recommendation. Yes, the detail of everyday life in this book is what makes the story work — even though, as she observes, there's no way it can make sense for the story to take place in the year when it's set.

This is the third Tey book I've read, the others being Miss Pym Disposes and The Daughter of Time. They're all mystery novels in a sense, but in very different ways. If I hadn't seen the author's name on the spine, I don't think I would have guessed that the same person wrote those books.

9/23 Olivia Judson, Dr. Tatiana's Sex Advice to All Creation

A natural history book, focusing on reproduction, and written in the form of a sex advice column. “Dear Dr. Tatiana, I'm a queen bee, and I'm worried. All my lovers leave their genitals inside me and then drop dead. Is this normal? — Perplexed in Cloverhill”

The author is an evolutionary biologist. The form and tone of the book are flippant, and a lot of it is indeed stories about weird things that some organisms do, but it does also teach serious evolutionary biology. The book is organized into chapters, each of which is illustrated by advice column letters and each of which is oriented around some specific theme in the evolutionary biology of reproduction. The first chapter, for example, discusses the famous Bateman principle that reproduction is cheap for males and that thus, as a general rule, males are naturally promiscuous and females are naturally chaste. This is now known to be false; it's the sort of thing that looks like reasonable deductive logic but that turns out to depend on hidden assumptions, and that turns out to have been based on limited observations of a single species. (Drosophila melanogaster, as it happens.) Along with the stories, the author is showing the reader how to think like an evolutionary biologist: how should you reason about the circumstances in which a particular behavior — cannibalism, monogamy, selfing in hermaphrodites, whatever — will evolve?

The part of the book I liked best was the last couple of chapters, which end up discussing questions like what sex is and how it evolved in the first place. Partly that's because that's the section where we're introduced to some of the most interesting organisms — slime molds are seriously weird, both in their reproduction and in other ways. This is the section where we look at these questions from the broadest perspective, one that seems very strange from my limited mammalian viewpoint. The exchange of genetic material often goes along with sexual reproduction, but that's not universal — lots of bacteria exchange genetic material by conjugation, but reproduce asexually by fission. Sexual reproduction in eukaryotes is much more complicated and involves sex cells of multiple sexes, which are a sort of type system: two sex cells of the same type can't merge with each other. The reasons for having such a type system are unknown, but the current best guess seems to be that it's a mechanism to ensure that an organism doesn't inherit multiple and possibly incompatible lineages of mitochondria. Usually, for unknown reasons, an organism has two sexes (i.e. two types of sex cells), but that's not universal. If the two types of sex cells have different sizes, which isn't universal either, then we define the large ones as female and the small ones male, and we can call an individual a female or a male or a hermaphrodite depending on which type(s) of sex cells it produces. In mammals this is determined genetically, but that's not universal even among vertebrates.

James Thurber and E. B. White's once asked: “Is Sex Necessary?” Apparently so, at least for most complex organisms, but the reason for that is still not well understood. We have a lot to learn about evolution!

9/16 Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, The Sorrows of Young Werther (tr. Elizabeth Mayer and Louise Bogan)

The Sorrows of Young Werther is Goethe's most famous book (although later in life he at least partially renounced it), and one of the most famous works of the Romantic movement. It's probably the sort of book that Marianne Dashwood would have read, and that she would have taken as a guide!

The structure of this book is unusual. It's almost entirely an epistolary novel, but we only see half of the conversation. Most of the book consists of letters from Werther to his friend Wilhelm; it doesn't include any of Wilhelm's replies, and we learn very little about Wilhelm beyond his name. And then the last part of it is no longer epistolary, but a purported reconstruction of Werther's last days by yet another character that we learn nothing about, an unnamed editor.

9/11 Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan (ed.), The New Space Opera 2

This anthology includes Peter Watts's Hugo winning story “The Island,” and several other really good stories — I'd have trouble choosing a favorite.

It's not entirely clear just what New Space Opera is, but then, it's always hard to define genres and subgenres precisely. Wars and galactic empires and spies aren't in short supply! Many of the stories are bleak, but a number are lighthearted or self-consciously genre referential. (Cory Doctorow's “To Go Boldly” is both.) Several stories actually use the phrase “space opera,” one in quite a literal sense.

Most of the time I think I like my space opera in novel length, but not always. This is quite a strong anthology.

9/7 Thad Carhart, The Piano Shop on the Left Bank

Reminds me that I really need to get our piano tuned, and then I really really need to start practicing again.

9/4 Dave Thau, The Book of Javascript (2nd edition)

An introductory tutorial. It covers a wide range of topics, including CSS and Ajax, none in great depth. That might sound like a putdown, but it really isn't. There are so many interconnecting Web standards (HTML, ECMAScript, DOM, XML, CSS,...) that you really need a broad overview of them all before trying to learn the full story on any one.

8/28 David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas

The title is first mentioned more than a hundred pages in; its relevance to the story is first explained maybe halfway through the book; a character explains the book's structure most of the way toward the end. (Although by then the structure is fairly apparent.)

Cloud Atlas is written in several sections, each in a different genre and each using a different narrative technique. So what is the book about? I'm not sure I could give a simple answer to that question, although I could identify some of the recurring themes. There are connections between the sections, some direct and others less so. In some ways the strongest links are between the first section and the middle one (or the last, depending on how one counts it). I'm not sure I understood this book fully, but I liked it a lot.

8/19 Gore Vidal, Julian

The introduction refers to I, Claudius, and it's a natural comparison: the novel purports to be the secret memoirs of the emperor Julian (331–363), annotated after his death by his friends. I've read Gibbon, so I knew at least the outlines of the story before reading Julian. It's a compelling story. It's impossible to know what someone so far removed from us in time was really like, which is why this is a novel and not a history book, but whatever the real Julian was like he must have been fascinating.

Julian was the last pagan emperor of Rome. His uncle Constantine was the first Christian emperor, and Julian's successor Theodosius (not his immediate successor; there were a few forgettable emperors in between) made Christianity the official state religion. Julian's attempt to restore worship of the old gods failed.

Julian thought of himself as a philosopher. It's said (and this is the way Vidal portrays it) that Julian had no political ambitions in his youth, that all he wanted was to study Greek philosophy. There's some evidence for that. The astonishing fact, however, is that Julian was also the most successful military leader of the late Roman empire. He rose to power driving back a Gothic invasion of Gaul, and after becoming sole emperor he turned his attention to Persia, Rome's rival superpower. Julian defeated the Great King's army in front of the Persian capital, Ctesiphon, and for a time it appeared that Julian was going to achieve the old Roman ambition of conquering Persia — it's said that the Great King Sapor (or Shapur) offered to cede half his empire to Rome in exchange for peace, and that Julian refused. The Persians responded by burning their own crops, defeating Julian much as the Russians defeated Napoleon. Julian died in the retreat.

In Vidal's version, Julian was murdered by a Christian Roman conspiracy. It's possible. Treason in high places was hardly unknown, and conspiracies to murder emperors did exist. On the other hand, the death of a general leading a retreating and disintegrating army doesn't seem to need an elaborate explanation. Either way, it's one of the great what-ifs of history. Rome and Persia exhausted each other through centuries of warfare, and in the 7th century the Arabs conquered all of the Persian empire and half of the remaining Roman empire. What if Julian had succeeded in his invasion, or what if he had accepted Sapor's offer? If Julian had lived, might he have also succeeded in his religious goals? What would have happened a few centuries later, if both Rome and Persia hadn't been so weak? Might the rise of both Christianity and Islam as world religions have hinged on something so small?

8/17 Michael Ruhlman, Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking

Basically a cookbook, but an unusual one. There are recipes in it, but not all that many, and they're embedded in text. The premise behind this book is that most of what you do in the kitchen is based on a small set of fundamental templates, a ratio of the main ingredients and the basic technique for combining them. So, for example, there are many kinds of bread, but all of them share roughly the same ratio of of flour to water. (5:3, by weight.) There are many kinds of sauce in the Hollandaise family, but they're all based on the same principle (an emulsion of egg yolk and butter) and roughly the same ratio. The idea behind this book is that understanding the basic techniques, and the familial relationships of recipes, lets you understand recipes better and lets you cook many things without looking up a recipe.

The basic idea is certainly true. The idea that a literal “ratio” is the most important part of the template is more true in some kinds of cooking than others — despite the title, the book creeps away from ratios by the end. It's still a useful way of thinking, though, and gave me some ideas for new things to try.

7/31 Charlie Stross, The Fuller Memorandum

The latest Laundry novel. Something I hadn't known from the reviews: one of the minor characters, Mike Ford, is pretty obviously someone I knew. (Pretty obvious from the physical description, and from the fact that another character calls him Doctor Mike, and especially from the dedication.)

7/30 Elizabeth Moon, Victory Conditions

Reading this on my Nexus I, I was amused that much of the story took place on the planet Nexus II.

7/28 Elizabeth Moon, Command Decision

7/27 Elizabeth Moon, Engaging the Enemy

It reads very much like the middle book in a series, probably because that's what it is.

7/26 Mark Twain, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court

The title precisely describes the book's premise: Hank Morgan, a practical and unsentimental engineer with a mastery of the latest 19th century technology, is somehow transported back in time to 6th century Arthurian Britain. This must have been one of the first time travel stories written — it was published in 1889, a few years before Wells's The Time Machine.

A Connecticut Yankee is in part a satire, both of the romanticization of chivalry and of modernity's certainty of its own superiority. In addition to the satire, though, there's genuine moral outrage. The main character may be ridiculous in his provincialism and his belief that he can and should rehape the world, but the world he sees, the casual cruelty and injustice of a society based on aristocracy, is worse than ridiculous.

This is an Arthurian story, and so, like almost all Arthurian stories, it turns out to be a story about the ultimate failure of a dream. A different dream than in most versions, though: “a modified monarchy, till Arthur's days were done, then the destruction of the throne, nobility abolished, every member of it bound out to some useful trade, universal suffrage instituted, and the whole government placed in the hands of the men and women of the nation there to remain.”

This is also a book about the history of technology; it must also be one of the first books about what's now a common science fiction idea, someone from an advanced society trying to start an industrial revolution in a less developed world. It's interesting to see such a discussion from the perspective of more than a hundred years.

7/25 Elizabeth Moon, Marque and Reprisal

Is there any modern precedent for a well planned, coordinated military/terrorist attack, specifically targeted against a single corporation? I'm trying to figure out what kind of legal and governmental response would seem realistic, and I just have trouble picturing it.

7/18 Elizabeth Moon, Trading in Danger

First book of the Vatta's War series — slightly odd to call it military science fiction, since the main character isn't actually in the military (except for the first dozen pages or so), but it fits squarely into the subgenre anyway.

7/16 Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

“The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.”

7/13 James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era

One of the cover blurbs calls this the best one-volume history of the American Civil War ever written. I wouldn't know about that comparison — I haven't read many other Civil War books. (And none since high school, I think.) But it is very good. It's clear, readable, and exciting. I came away with a much better understanding of the politics, the economics, the military campaigns, and the personalities.

The book ended a little earlier than I expected: alluding to rather than writing about Lincoln's murder, and leaving out Reconstruction entirely. It's part of a series, The Oxford History of the United States (I wonder if the other books in the series are this good too), and perhaps it was a deliberate decision to cover Reconstruction in the next volume.

Battle Cry of Freedom ends with a brief epilogue: why did the Union win? At first sight the answer seems obvious, since it had a far larger and more technologically advanced economy. On the other hand, rebels with good leadership have managed to win independence from larger foes. (The US from Britain; Vietnam from France and the US.) McPherson concludes that we shouldn't underestimate contingency, and given all that led up to that point it's hard to disagree.

There is no epilogue asking why the Civil War happened in the first place, because that really does seem pretty obvious. The book makes it clear that the conventional wisdom is right, and the revisionism is wrong: it really was all about slavery. And here it's hard for me to see much contingency. Maybe there could have been a different war, a decade or two earlier or later, but it's hard for me to see any way that the conflict over slavery could have been resolved without war.

7/3 Charlie Stross, The Trade of Queens

The last book in the Merchant Princes series, which ended up taking a very different direction from what I expected when I read the first book. Yes, those are mushroom clouds on the front cover.

6/30 John Scalzi, The God Engines

“Dark fantasy,” the author calls it. Dark it is, yes. As fantasy goes, though, it has quite a science fictional feel to it. Quite unlike anything else of his I've read.

6/28 Raymond Chandler, The Lady in the Lake

Doesn't everyone know that when you find a badly decomposed body in a lake you're supposed to be suspicious about the victim's identity?

6/27 Iain Banks, The Steep Approach to Garbadale

It reminded me a bit of The Crow Road: it's a family story, spanning some decades, and in part a coming of age story. The narrative structure is initially complicated, with several viewpoint characters and with a couple timelines cut together, but eventually it starts to focus on a single character, and starts to circle around a possible family secret (which, since it's Banks, will inevitably be a dark one) that may explain some of the book's threads. Not the same kind of secret as in The Crow Road, though, and it's better integrated into the story as a whole.

This isn't Banks's most recent book, but it's the most recent one I've read. It was published in 2007, probably set (for the most part) in '05 or so, and the characters have many of the same concerns that the author would have had at the time — global warming, the Iraq war, the American presidential election, globalization. I don't think any of the characters are authorial mouthpieces, and the character who says that “I wouldn't move to the States now any more than I'd have moved to Germany in the mid-Thirties” is being hyperbolic, but I think Banks would at least be sympathetic to that point of view.

6/21 Fumi Yoshinaga, Ōoku: The Inner Chambers (vol. 1) (tr. Akemi Wegmüller)

A graphic novel set in the Tokugawa era. In the world of the book, a plague killed most of the men and boys in Japan. Eighty years later, when the story is set, boys continue to die in great numbers but society has reestablished itself. In some ways society is much like it was before the plague, in other ways not. The male population has stabilized at a quarter of the female. Men are rare and protected, valued mostly as potential fathers. Laborers, merchants, samurai, government officials, the Shogun, all are women.

The title refers to the inner chambers of Edo Castle, where much of the story takes place: populated (it is said) by three thousand beautiful high-ranking young men, and forbidden to all women except the Shogun herself. Much of the first volume focuses on Mizuno Yunoshin, a young man from an impoverished samurai family, who enters the Shogun's service in the Ōoku and learns about that strange world while we do.

I'm not a regular manga reader, and I don't know a lot of the conventions — I don't always even know how to tell one character from another, and I'm not used to the right-to-left orientation. It's still a fascinating story, and I want to read the rest. There are two volumes available in English translation. I don't know how many volumes have been published in Japanese, but I think the story is not yet complete.

6/19 John Buchan, The Thirty-nine Steps

Another book I knew first as a movie. It's a very loose adaptation! Hitchcock took from the book the general outline of the main character's predicament, the Scottish setting, and some of the individual episodes. He did not take the very specific time when the book was set — June or July 1914 — or the specific nature of the foreign spies' plot. This book was published in 1915, and in that year it's hard to imagine a British author writing an adventure story that wasn't about the war in one way or another.

6/18 Eleanor Arnason, Tomb of the Fathers

A mostly lighthearted story that's also a book about the aftermath of civilizational collapse and sex war.

6/15 Rafael Sabatini, The Sea Hawk

Huh. I saw the Errol Flynn movie many years ago, and that's what I was expecting when I picked up this book. Looks like the writers of that film took very little from Sabatini's book other than the title.

6/10 Shaun Tan, The Arrival

A wordless graphic novel about an immigrant in a strange new country that isn't exactly the America I know.

6/9 Christopher Tyerman, God's War: A New History of the Crusades

The basic story of the Crusades is relatively simple. In 1095, Pope Urban II called for a holy war to capture Jerusalem, and preached that this kind of warfare could also be a form of penance. In 1099, in the First Crusade, a small and outnumbered western army did indeed capture Antioch, Jerusalem, and other cities, and established the crusader kingdoms, or “Outremer”: the county of Edessa, the principality of Antioch, the county of Tripoli, and the kingdom of Jerusalem. They lasted almost a century, until Saladin defeated the westerners in 1187 at the decisive battle of Hattin. The Third Crusade (that's the one with Saladin and Richard the Lionhearted) reestablished a diminished kingdom of Jerusalem, without Jerusalem, and more of an outpost than an actual state — its capitol was Acre (modern Akko). Further crusades — like the Fourth Crusade that sacked Constantinople in 1204, and St. Louis's failed attempt to conquer Egypt in the early 1250s — weren't able to save Outremer. Acre, the last mainland city of Outremer, was conquered by the Mamluks in 1291, although the island states of Rhodes and Cyprus lasted much longer.

Neither the establishment nor the end of Outremer was inevitable — there's an astonishing air of contingency that runs throughout the story, and you can imagine all sorts of counterfactual alternate histories. What if there hadn't been a civil war at this exact moment, what if an important military leader (Frederick Barbarossa most obviously, but also Richard I or Saladin) hadn't died in some unlikely way at exactly the wrong time…

God's War is a long book, a thousand pages, but in many places it feels sketchy and compressed because of the huge expanse of time and space it covers. You can't think of the Crusades as a war between unified Islam and unified Christendom — both were politically fragmented. The political actors (at one time or another) included the Papacy, the German Holy Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, the Sultanate of Rum, the kingdoms of France and England, the Ayyubid dynasties of Egypt and Syria and later the Mamluk Sultanate that replaced them, the city-states of Genoa, Venice, and Pisa, the Fatimid Caliphate, Outremer's own rulers, the Mongols, and many more groups, each with its own factions. Diplomacy was complicated and fluid; it was by no means unknown for counts or dukes to ally with sultans or emirs. And then there were the other crusades, which had the same formal apparatus of Papal bulls, crusade indulgences, special legal privileges, and the ceremony of taking the cross. There was the Albigensian Crusade in southern France, and crusades in the Baltic against the pagan Prussians and Lithuanians, and crusades in the Iberian peninsula, and raids in North Africa, and at one point crusades against the German emperor and against the Popes' Italian enemies. There's a map showing all the crusades and when they happened, and there's something almost everywhere.

It's hard to know when the story should stop. There were still crusades after 1291, like the one that ended so disastrously at Nicopolis in 1396 (it's one of the major events in Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror), and there were even crusades after 1453, when the Ottoman capture of Constantinople led to a renewal of European calls to fight the Turks. But gradually crusades started getting more theoretical or aspirational, getting smaller scale and less important over time. The Hundred Years' War, the Protestant Reformation, the rise of the nation-state, and, later, the 1648 Peace of Westphalia that made international relations essentially secular, all made crusading less relevant. There seems to have been at least one formally declared crusade as late as the 17th century, but by then it had long been an anachronism.

5/31 Walter Jon Williams, This Is Not a Game

A thriller set in the world of alternate reality games (ARGs).

5/24 Michael Lewis, The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine

The “big short” of the title is shorting subprime housing bonds. This is indirectly a book about the financial crisis of 2008 and surrounding years, but told as a story about a very small number of investors, perhaps a dozen at most, who studied the mortgage bond market and bet against it.

We follow these investors as they learn about subprime bonds, as they try to figure how what they're missing, how these enormously complicated structures built on top of crappy loans can possibly make sense, and how they gradually realize, aghast, that they aren't missing anything and that this systema really is as senseless as it seems. Eventually all of these skeptics, working separately, realize that the way to bet against subprime bonds is with a once obscure financial instrument, the credit default swap (CDS). And along the way the book gives an unusually clear explanation of all of this complexity — in some cases, complexity that seems to be more like deliberate obfuscation to make markets less liquid and less efficient, hence more profitable for some insiders. I've been reading about synthetic CDOs for years, but after reading this book I think I finally understand what they are. (Simple answer: it's a CDO where an underlying asset isn't an actual mortgage bond, but the long side of a CDS bet. The key insight is that if you own the long side of a CDS then you're entitled to a stream of payments unless the bond defaults, which looks a lot like owning the bond itself. So you can put it into a CDO just like you could put in an ordinary mortgage bond.)

The narrative in this book isn't quite as gripping as in Lewis's first book, Liar's Poker, just because this book is reporting and the other was first person experience. It's still a fascinating and extraordinary story, though, and it's a clear explanation of important and bizarre events.

This is the second book Lewis wrote where he thought he was writing about a financial industry that had discredited itself and that would no longer have the status it did. In both cases he was wrong. It's a forgiveable mistake. In a sane world that's what would have happened. If the disastrous financial crisis of '08 wasn't enough to make the finance industry lose power, what would be?

5/13 Agatha Christie, The Secret Adversary

Agatha Christie's second novel, published in 1922. At this distance the politics seems very funny — the plot centers around a sinister group of conspirators, Bolsheviks, criminals, and Irish nationalists, trying to stage a revolution using Labour as its catspaw. In the days of Blair and Brown it seems so strange that anyone, even a right-wing paranoid, could ever have seen Labour that way.

5/1 Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl, Drink This: Wine Made Simple

I borrowed this book from the library, but I should consider buying a copy and working through it. It's mostly organized as a series of tastings, one for each of nine grape varietals. The idea is: here are the different places where riesling (say) is grown, here are the different styles, this is what you can expect from the different regions and styles, and here are a half dozen or so wines you can try so that you can understand those differences and find out what you like. It's intended for wine novices. I'm neither a novice nor an expert, but I think I'd probably get a lot out of that sort of systematic exercise.

4/22 Michael Pollan, Food Rules: An Eater's Manual

This is a very short book: 140 pages, many blank. It's a sort of afterword to In Defense of Food: expanding the practical advice “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants” into more specific guidelines, each with a little bit of explanation.

The most valuable part of the book is the introduction, explaining why it makes sense to look to food traditions instead of the latest nutrition research. Human bodies are complicated, doing good human nutrition research is very hard, and we just don't yet have a very clear idea of what all the important nutrients are and how they interact. It's not antiscientific to appreciate the limits of our knowledge.

4/18 G. K. Chesterton, The Wisdom of Father Brown

“The God of the Gongs” is repellant enough that it almost spoils the whole collection, but not quite. Overall it's pleasant, clever, and insubsantial — stories like “The Purple Wig” may fall apart if you think about them for more than thirty seconds, but they're oddly compelling and memorable.

4/9 Walter Scott, Ivanhoe

Templars, and Crusaders, and Richard the Lionhearted and Bad Prince John, and a Disinherited Knight, and haughty Norman barons, and a beautiful Jewish damsel in distress, and even Robin Hood. What more could one want? It's one of the best adventure stories ever written.

4/1 Andrea Hairston, Mindscape

3/20 Ruth Reichl, Comfort Me with Apples

The second volume of Ruth Reichl's memoirs, and the one in which she becomes a famous restaurant critic. Not a famous New York restaurant critic, though. This is a California story, and largely a Berkeley one: the first fancy restaurant Reichl ate at was Chez Panisse, and when the book begins she's living in a group house in Southside. There are recipes, but it's a personal story, not a cookbook. It's a story about food and sex and learning how to experience the world.

3/15 Sir Terry Pratchett, Carpe Jugulum

Vampires and witches. “There's no grays, only white that's got grubby. I'm surprised you don't know that. And sin, young man, is when you treat people as things. Including yourself. That's what sin is.” Hm. Is Granny Weatherwax a Kantian?

3/13 Umberto Eco, Foucault's Pendulum

Umberto Eco is a very erudite writer, and much erudition is on display in this book. In part it's a grand romp, a mixture of every lunatic conspiracy theory about ancient secret societies ever invented. It includes the Templars, the Rosicrucians, the Bavarian Illuminati, any number of early modern scholars and alchemists and magicians from Paracelsus to John Dee to René Descartes, the Kabbalah, the immortal Comte de Saint-Germain, the golem of Prague, the true authorship of Shakespeare's plays, combinatorics, the geomancy of subways, occult Druidic secrets, Brazilian syncretic religion, the serpent Kundalini, and, of course, Foucault's pendulum. It mentions the “secret” of The Da Vinci Code, but just as a brief throwaway — not really interesting or funny enough for this book's über conspiracy. There's an interesting ambiguity for most of the book about whether any or all of these stories are real, or a joke, or something else.

And ultimately, and more seriously, this book is about the seductiveness of grand secrets, of occult or “hermetic” world views where everything is connected to everything else, coincidences don't exist, and everything is just a symbol of a deeper reality. “I believe you can reach the point where there is no longer any difference between developing the habit of pretending to believe and developing the habit of believing.”

2/28 Phil & Kaja Foglio, Girl Genius Book 8: Agatha Heterodyne and the Chapel of Bones

In which our hero returns to take possession of her ancestral castle.

2/28 Michael J. Sandel, Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do?

This book is sort of a ultracompressed summary of the author's undergrad political philosophy class at Harvard. The fact that it's a political philosophy class, rather than an ethics class, is significant: justice is certainly related to ethics, and this book does discuss theories like utilitarianism and Kantian ethics, but the focus is different. This isn't (despite the subtitle) a question of what the right thing is for an individual to do in a given situation, but of how society should be organized.

The weakest part of this book, in my opinion, is its discussion of utilitarianism, which I take much more seriously than the author. He doesn't mention rule utilitarianism, and he doesn't mention any of the many potential answers that people have proposed to the standard arguments against consequentialism. The most interesting part of the book is the discussion of loyalty and patriotism. It's hard to account for those things as virtues under most of the usual theories, including those of Kant and Mill and Rawls. You can take that as an argument against patriotism and loyalty, or you can take it as an argument against the mainstream of metaethical thinking for the last couple centuries. Sandel chooses the latter. That's really the heart of this book: trying to understand what justice can mean in terms of communities. It's a goal that Plato, who originated this whole line of inquiry, would have sympathized with.

2/27 Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses

Midnight's Children is the book that made Salman Rushdie a famous writer, and The Satanic Verses is the book that made him a famous public figure even among people who don't read novels. My memory (I wonder if anyone has written a careful history) is that the whole affair was incredibly contingent, starting with a minor Pakistani election campaign. But in any case, nowadays it's impossible to read this book without thinking about the riots, the death threats, Ayatollah Khomeini, the years of police protection.

The odd thing is that associating this book with terrorism isn't completely wrong. It begins with terrorists blowing up an airplane, it includes riots and bombings, it mentions the Iranian Revolution, and it even mentions Khomeini by name. But by and large that's not what the book is about. The sections of the book that made people angriest are dream sequences, fantasies by someone who is losing his mind. The interesting (and complicated) question is why he is going mad, and what his hallucinations say about his madness and its causes.

When Rushdie spoke at Google, one of my Indian coworkers asked: given how many references to Indian culture you make in your books, do you expect anyone who isn't Indian to understand them? Rushdie's first response, I think semiserious, was: I don't care. He expanded on that: there's enough in his books that any reader will understand, and there are also some extras that will mean more to some people than others. What he didn't say, but might have, is that not all of those extras have to do with India — I noticed references to Shakespeare, Dickens, and Joyce, among others, and presumably there were many equally obvious things I failed to notice. I'm sure I would have gotten more out of this book if I'd known more about Bollywood movies or Bengali poetry or the early history of Islam, but it's also true that I would have gotten more out of it if I'd known more about some aspects of English culture. Much more of this book takes place in London than in Mumbai. (Or Bombay, as it was called when The Satanic Verses was published.) And, very specifically, Thatcher era London. In large part it's a book about the English immigrant experience, and the inner struggles of the main characters are largely about gaining and renouncing communal identity.

2/7 Nicola Griffith, The Blue Place

The first Aud Torvingen book — a crime novel (one where the detective has an unusually high body count), not science fiction.

One interesting characteristic of this book, which I'm pretty sure was a deliberate choice rather than just realism, is that the main character is lesbian, a Norwegian/US dual citizen, and a former Atlanta cop, and she's still on good terms with her former colleagues and there's no sign that anyone on the force or elsewhere has the slightest problem with her sex, sexual orientation, or national origin.

This is also the kind of suspense novel whose plot only works because two people, in a first world country, are unable to get in touch with each other. This was just barely plausible at the time the book was written, when you might imagine that a couple might have just one cell phone between them, but nowadays it would require more explanation and contrivance.

2/4 Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility

“The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means,” says Miss Prism. Well, not in Sense and Sensibility. The good end happily enough, but most of the bad characters end at least as happily and considerably richer — as Austen says, “a most encouraging instance of what an earnest, an unceasing attention to self interest, however its progress may be apparently obstructed, will do in securing every advantage of fortune, with no other sacrifice than that of time and conscience.”

The one thing I thought was imperfect about this book was the character of Edward. He hardly was a character! We know him almost entirely by Elinor's view of him, and he comes across mostly as an object to be desired. The contrast to other more fully developed characters, most obviously Elinor and Marianne, but also Lucy, and Colonel Brandon, and Mrs. Jennings, and Willoughby, and even relatively minor characters like Fanny, is striking.

1/31 G. K. Chesterton, The Innocence of Father Brown

The Father Brown stories are probably what Chesterton is best known for nowadays. I find them a comfort read. Some of the mysteries are ingenious, some are unfair and not completely self consistent, but they're always fun to read — in large part because of, not despite, the conservative ideology they're steeped in.

1/26 Michael Pollan, The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals

The “dilemma” of the title is a simple one: out of the vast array of choices, what should I eat today? For some species it's simple, because they're adapted to eat a single kind of food. It's more complicated for humans. Our choices changed ten thousand years ago with the invention of agriculture, and changed again over the last sixty years with the invention of radically new forms of industrial agriculture and processed foods.

The four meals of the title, an organizing principle for the book's exploration of our various food chains, are a processed industrial corn-based meal (bought at McDonalds, eaten in a moving car—what else?); a dinner made from industrial organic food bought at Whole Foods; “beyond organic” food from Polyface Farm; and a dinner that the author cooked from meat and plants and mushrooms that he hunted and gathered and grew himself.

I knew much of the material on big industrial food chains already, partly from reading other things by Michael Pollan, but it's still amazing stuff: the vast monoculture fields of inedible corn, processed in chemical plants to become sodas and oils and snack foods and (indirectly) beef and chicken. Most of the processed food in our supermarkets is corn, although it might not look like it. Even the disposable containers and utensils for our food are sometimes made of corn—undoubtedly a new invention in the few years since this book came out, or I'm sure Pollan would have mentioned it.

The most entertaining part of the book is the brief glimpse of the subculture of mushroom enthusiasts, and the way that the gourmet wild mushroom economy works. The most enlightening, though, is the section on the two very different kinds of “organic” food: what the organic food movement meant when it started 40 or 50 years ago, and the ways in which it's evolved so that today's large-scale organic food is grown in ways that are barely distinguishible from any other agribusiness operation. A real improvement, yes, but a much smaller improvement than one might think at first.

If you look at images of farms, whether the marketing material that Pollan calls “supermarket pastoral” (he's good at coining memorable phrases) or something like the coloring book Alice was playing with this morning, you'll see a kind of farm that was common a hundred years ago and rare today: a big red barn, a family working a few hundred acres, a variety of plants and animals. Even if we intellectually know that that has nothing to do with the world of commodity grains and CAFOs, it's still the idea of farming that most of us have and that the food industry wants us to have. It's odd to realize that something so seemingly traditional and familiar is actually quite rare and almost part of the counterculture.

1/20 Karl Schroeder, Ventus

Set in the same world as Lady of Mazes, some centuries later. It's a different book, with almost no characters in common, but it asks a similar question: if there are no limits to our options, how can we construct a meaningful life? One possible answer that this book proposes is thalience.

1/16 Nnedi Okorafor, The Shadow Speaker

Winner of the 2007 Carl Brandon Parallax Award! It's an interesting blend of science fiction and fantasy, set mostly in a late 21st century West Africa. It's also a YA novel: a coming of age story, and a story about overcoming internalized oppression.

I realized while reading it that I've probably read more books set on Mars than anywhere in Africa, which is a shame.

1/10 Michael Lewis, Liar's Poker

Liar's Poker was published in 1989, but interest in it has revived in the last year or so: it's the story of the author's experience working as a bond salesman at Salomon Brothers in the mid 80s, and, even though the book was written long before the 21st century mortgage crisis, it has an unusually clear explanation of how some of the financial innovations associated with the crisis began. I think I might finally understand CDOs. (Although I'm still fuzzy about CDO2s, and completly baffled by synthetic CDOs.) I hadn't realized that securitized mortgages and CDOs had such a long history, and I hadn't realized their connection with the S&L crisis of the 80s.

That's really a side issue, though, just two chapters of the book. The book is about the author's own Wall Street story. He wrote it in part as a cautionary tale, but, as he wrote ten years later in a piece called "The End", lots of college students read the book as an instruction manual and an inspiration. I suppose that was inevitable.

1/8 Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Diving into the Wreck

I read part of this as a standalone novella in Asimov's. I liked the novel, but thought the shorter form version worked a little better.

1/6 The Odyssey (tr. Robert Fagles)

Longinus famously wrote that the Odyssey was “nothing but an epilogue of the Iliad,” that it betrayed “the special mark of age,” that “in the Odyssey one might liken Homer to a setting sun.” My impression is that most ancient critics and scholars would have agreed with him that the Iliad was the greater work. Like most moderns, however, I like the Odyssey better. Its narrative structure is more sophisticated, and I find its characters more interesting. Obviously we prize different things today than readers did two thousand years ago!

The Odyssey is often described as the story of Odysseus's wanderings in his return from Troy. That's true in a sense, but misleading. The stories that everyone remembers — the Cyclops, the Sirens, Circe, Scylla and Charybdis, and so on — are really a small part of the poem: four books (9–12), out of 24. For the most part the Odyssey is the story of what happened when Odysseus returned to Ithaca, his triumph over the suitors and the eventual reconciliation and restoration of order. We hear several versions of the story of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, a warning about what another hero's return was like.

Matt Austern