What I read in 2015

12/31 Richard Ned Lebow, Archduke Franz Ferdinand Lives!: A World Without World War I

Alternate history is usually a subgenre of science fiction (“Sidewise in Time”; The Man in the High Castle; The Difference Engine; Farthing), but there has also long been a small current of books about counterfactual history written by actual historians. When you think about it, the counterfactual isn't usually all that far away from ordinary writing history; if you say that event A caused event B, then at least one way to understand that claim is that if event A hadn't occurred then event B wouldn't have either. If you assert, for example, that Stalin hijacked the Bolshevik revolution, then you're implicitly talking about an alternate timeline where there was no Stalin and the history of Russian communism was different. The counterfactual is implicit, but it's still there. Occasionally historians make it explicit.

If Franz Ferdinand and Sophie hadn't been killed in Sarajevo on June 28, there probably would have been no general war in the summer of 1914. Would the underlying conditions have made a war inevitable anyway, a few months or a year later, the next time some crisis or other emerged? Perhaps, but perhaps not. All of the great powers were at worst divided about war, and it took a confluence of events, including the removal of the leaders of the pro-peace factions in France and Austria-Hungary, to overcome that. And if Europe had managed to avoid war for just a few more years, then changing circumstances (a new chief of staff in Germany; a new emperor and a new constitutional order in Austria-Hungary; a stronger Russia) might have made it even less likely.

That's the premise of this book, anyway. Lebow presents several possible worlds that might have come to pass if there had been no War, including the best plausible world (no Nazis and no Bolsheviks; a century of peace in Europe; gradual and mostly peaceful decolonization) and the worst plausible world (an authoritarian Germany; continued tensions and a decades-long cold war; eventually the destruction of London and Berlin by nuclear war in the 1970s). Even the favorable scenarios would have been worse in some important respects; without the world wars the worst forms of institutionalized racism in the US would probably have lasted far longer than they did in our timeline, for example. Lebow imagines how the lives of a few important historical figures might have differed. The details aren't to be taken seriously, of course, although it's amusing to imagine Churchill and Nehru sharing the Nobel Peace Prize, or the novels of the Russian-Jewish writer Isaak Yudovitš Ozimov, or a Göttingen that remained the world center of mathematics, or Lenin teaching college courses in exile at Columbia University; the point is just to show that they would have been different, perhaps in ways we can't imagine. The basic argument of this book is that the 20th century wasn't inevitable but highly contingent.

12/23 Terry Pratchett, Hogfather

Happy Hogswatch. Ho. Ho. Ho.

12/18 Jane Austen, Emma

We've had quite the Emma marathon lately! We saw a musical adaptation of the book recently at TheatreWorks (not deep, but a fun evening), which inspired us to reread the book and to watch Clueless.

“She had always wanted to do every thing, and had made more progress both in drawing and music than many might have done with so little labour as she would ever submit to. She played and sang;—and drew in almost every style; but steadiness had always been wanting; and in nothing had she approached the degree of excellence which she would have been glad to command, and ought not to have failed of. She was not much deceived as to her own skill either as an artist or a musician, but she was not unwilling to have others deceived, or sorry to know her reputation for accomplishment often higher than it deserved.”

12/12 Allie Brosh, Hyperbole and a Half

A compilation of some of the best strips from one of my favorite web comics.

12/7 Thornton Wilder, Three Plays

A collection of Wilder's three best known plays, Our Town, The Skin of Our Teeth, and The Matchmaker (the basis for the musical Hello, Dolly!), with a preface where Wilder explains some of his ideas about the theater. Somehow I never got around to seeing or reading any of these plays before now.

“I can't invent any words for this play, and I'm glad I can't. I hate this play and every word in it.
“As for me, I don't understand a single word of it, anyway,—all about the troubles the human race has gone through, that's a subject for you.
“Besides, the author hasn't made up his silly mind as to whether we're all living back in caves or in New Jersey today, and that's the way it is all the way through.”

12/6 Alexander A. Stepanov and Daniel E. Rose, From Mathematics to Generic Programming

The term “generic programming” requires some explanation. As the term was originally used, and as it's used in this book, it's not about fancy tricks with templates; it's not about writing domain-specific languages that get evaluated in the preprocessor or implementing a lisp interpreter in terms of typelists or anything like that. There's no mention of metaprogramming or SFINAE, nothing that depends on any C++ features introduced in the last 15 years, almost nothing about parameterized containers, very little that depends on the fact that the book uses C++ at all. Generic programming is about designing algorithms in the most general setting without loss of efficiency. The focus is on the algorithms, and on understanding at a fundamental level what makes them work. That's usually some mathematical structure, and it's why Alex writes that “The separation of computer science from mathematics greatly impoverishes both.”

The term “mathematics” also requires some explanation. If you think of generic programming in terms of types and templates then you'll probably be thinking of the sorts of mathematics that appears in programming language research papers, things like category theory and lambda calculus and high powered mathematical logic. That's not what this book is about either. The mathematics is ordinary abstract algebra, number theory, and geometry. Most of it develops from ancient problems, like the study of primes and perfect numbers. The first algorithm discussed in this book, efficient multiplication, is known to have existed for more than 3500 years. The most important algorithm in the book, one that's developed at great length in several chapters and that's used to motivate many of the mathematical ideas, is Euclid's algorithm for Greatest Common Measure.

From Mathematics to Generic Programming has some overlap with Elements of Programming, but it's not nearly as terse or formal. It's easier to read, and for most people it's probably a better book to read first. From Mathematics to Generic Programming is written more in a historical style, showing where the mathematics comes from — who introduced new mathematical ideas and why, what problems were they trying to solve, what some of their lives were like. It helps to realize that axioms and definitions were introduced for a reason, that abstraction emerges from specifics.

12/3 John Sandford and Ctein, Saturn Run

A cross between a science fiction story and a techno-thriller: a MacGuffin is discovered somewhere among the moons of Saturn, setting off a race between the two superpowers of the mid 21st century, the US and China. The authors cared about getting the orbital mechanics right and basing the space travel in something like the real world, and they have an afterword where they explain some of the details. Both the US and the Chinese ships are extreme, but not completely unthinkable for a superpower in the 2060s that suddenly decided it was urgent to send a human crew to the outer Solar System and that was willing to put in a Manhattan Project scale effort to do it.

The US ship is called the USSS Richard M. Nixon. The in-book explanation is that the US government was making an insincere gesture toward US/Chinese cooperation. From the point of view of the authors, of course, they called that because it was funny.

11/25 Mary Robinette Kowal, Of Noble Family

There's a famous section in Culture and Imperialism where Said argues that the important part of Mansfield Park happens offstage, and that the book should be understood in the context of slavery. I've always found that a bit of a stretch, but I was reminded of it when reading Of Noble Family, the fifth and last book in the Glamourist series. Near the beginning of the book Vincent is told that his hated father has died in the West Indies and that he and Jane need to go there to settle the estate. Much of the book is about slavery, since how could a book set in that time and place not be, and it's also clearly inspired in part by Mansfield Park. (There's even a Sir Thomas among a group of party guests).

11/21 Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

  • You could not shock her more than she shocks me;
  • Besides her Joyce seems innocent as grass.
  • It makes me uncomfortable to see
  • An English spinster of the middle class
  • Describe the amorous effects of `brass',
  • Reveal so frankly and with such sobriety
  • The economic basis of society.
  •    — W. H. Auden
  • One of the things I noticed in this rereading is what a rarified elite the characters belong to. The Bennets may be insignificant compared to Lady Catherine de Bourgh, but they have an estate large enough for shooting, they keep a carriage, they have a staff of servants large enough that that they need a butler and a cook and a housekeeper to manage them, and they see anything other than financial independence as unthinkable. Think of it as a contrast between the 1% and the 0.1%.

    11/17 Kim Stanley Robinson, Aurora

    Is this the first of Robinson's books that takes place outside the Solar System? It's the first I've read, at any rate. The book begins one or two light years from Tau Ceti. The ship has been underway for 159 years and is now decelerating from 0.1c, so most of the main characters will live long enough to reach the destination. The ship's chief engineer, the main character's mother, is desperately trying to prevent collapse in an ecology twelve orders of magnitude smaller than Earth's.

    The book doesn't go where I (and I imagine most readers) expected it to. What you make of it will probably depend on whether you end up agreeing with the main characters' assessment of their situation.

    11/11 Margaret MacMillan, Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World

    The Armistice wasn't exactly a German surrender but also wasn't exactly not a surrender. Nor was it exactly the end of the war. The German treaty wasn't signed until June 28 1919, and some of other treaties weren't signed until the 1920s. In some places the fighting didn't end until the 1920s.

    Paris 1919 is exactly what it sounds like: a history of the Paris Peace Conference. The author argues against certain aspects of conventional wisdom, such as Keynes's argument, from Economic Consequences of the Peace, that it was a punitive treaty that made another war inevitable. In other respects learning more about the subject pretty much confirms what you'd thought. Yep, they made a hash of it, and at times they casually made decisions about places they knew nothing about, and Wilson's behavior was unhelpful.

    One of the things you get from reading this book is an appreciation for just how huge the scope of the Peace Conference was, and how many interlocking decisions there were to make. I previously had had the mistaken impression that the Peace Conference chose to dismantle the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires and create the new states of Austria, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Albania, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia. In fact all of those things were facts on the ground, in some cases unwelcome facts, that the Peace Conference had to deal with. There were a lot of borders to settle, and a lot of the pre-war and wartime treaties no longer applied. (The conference did, however, create the states of Iraq, Syria, Palestine, and Lebanon.) I hadn't quite realized how important Japan's role was, or the fact that Japan's top priority in Paris was an unsuccessful attempt to get a racial equality clause in the League of Nations charter. I hadn't realized how many of the conference's decisions had to do with the fear of Bolshevism, and with the inability to decide whether to negotiate with the Bolsheviks, or try to fight them, or do something else. I also hadn't realized the structural problem with the conference: the initial idea was that the five major Allied powers, Britain, France, the US, Italy, and Japan, would have a preliminary meeting to set an agenda and prepare for the conference itself — but that preliminary meeting turned out to be so complicated and time consuming that it turned into the actual conference without any explicit decision to that effect.

    This book is primarily about the first six months of the Peace Conference (the important part), but it necessarily skips ahead at times. It was written in 2001, and some parts of its story go through the end of the 20th century. Some of the decisions from the first half of 1919 had long lasting consequences.

    10/28 Terry Pratchett, The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents

    So there's this story of a piper hired to rid a town of rats, and the town fails to pay him. That's not what this book is about. Then there's also a story about a tricky cat and his rat companions who run a scam based on that old legend. That's not what this book is about either, although some characters, including Maurice, the cat, think it is at first. It's part of the Discworld series and a children's book (the first children's Discworld book, I think); it's partly a story about understanding the world through stories and partly about, as the author said in his Carnegie Medal acceptance speech, “the far more fantastic idea that humans are capable of intelligence as well … the possibility that evil can be defused by talking.”

    10/25 Seth Dickinson, The Traitor Baru Cormorant

    Is there a word for a story that's set in a wholly imagined world, one with its own history and geography and languages and cultures, but with nothing of the magical or supernatural about it? The Traitor Baru Cormorant was published as fantasy, anyway, and it feels like fantasy. Parts of it are obviously indebted to Guns, Germs, and Steel (the main character even asks a version of Yali's question), and the Imperial Republic reminds me, in its rationalism and system-building and sexual conservatism and ruthlessness and hatred of aristocracy, of what the French Revolution might have become, but this world is its own, not ours. It's a grim, complicated, and beautifully constructed story of colonialism, institutionalized homophobia, technocracy, betrayal, and accountancy.

    The author is now doing a chapter-by-chapter read-along of the book on his blog, pointing out all of the things that were going on slightly below the surface.

    10/15 Kerry Greenwood, Queen of the Flowers

    10/12 Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, August 1914 (tr. H. T. Willetts)

    This is the second edition of August 1914, published in 1981 and extensively revised, and greatly expanded, from the original 1971 edition. The title page says that it is The Red Wheel • Knot I and indeed in the second edition it's clear that, although the central event of the book is still the Battle of Tannenberg, the subject of the book is the Russian Revolution. Fully a third of the book flashes back to 1911 and earlier, to the career and assassination of Pyotr Arkadyevich Stolypin, Russian Prime Minister and, at least in Solzhenitsyn's version of the story, one of the very few honest and competent high officials of the tsarist government.

    10/12 Ann Leckie, Ancillary Mercy

    The final book in the trilogy that began with Ancillary Justice, and a fitting conclusion to a stunning story. I'm sure there will be other stories set in Radchaai space, but there's not going to be an indefinite series about “Breq” and her adventures.

    Recommended, but start with Ancillary Justice first. I have no idea whether this book would be readable if you haven't read the first two.

    10/10 Kerry Greenwood, The Castelmaine Murders

    The book takes place in the late 1920s, but the murders that Phryne Fisher investigates are from the late 1850s, during the gold rush.

    I don't believe the dinner early in the book, which includes a Caesar salad and “Beluga caviar, a gift from the Russian ambassador.” I believe that Caesar salad did exist then (consensus seems to be that Caesar Cardini invented it in 1924), but it seems very unlikely that the idea would have made it from Tijuana all the way to Melbourne in just four years. And as for that caviar, I don't think there even was a Soviet ambassador to Australia in 1928, let alone one who would be giving presents to aristocratic young women.

    10/5 Andy Weir, The Martian

    “So that's the situation. I'm stranded on Mars. I have no way to communicate with Hermes or Earth. Everyone thinks I'm dead. I'm in a Hab designed to last thirty-one days.
    “If the oxygenator breaks down, I'll suffocate. If the water reclaimer breaks down, I'll die of thirst. If the Hab breaches, I'll just kind of explode. If none of those things happen, I'll eventually run out of food and starve to death.
    “So yeah, I'm fucked.”

    10/3 Mary Robinette Kowal, Valour and Vanity

    I've never read a Regency caper novel before! And yes, subterraqueous really is a word. Or at any rate the real Lord Byron thought it was.

    9/29 Scott Meyers, Effective Modern C++: 42 Specific Ways to Improve Your Use of C++11 and C++14

    Just what it sounds like: a book to help experienced C++ programmers learn more about C++11 and C++14. It's necessarily selective: lots about rvalue references and lambdas and thread support, not much about regex or random number generators or variadic templates or SFINAE and enable_if. Still very useful if you write C++, though. I've been following this stuff pretty closely (I'm on the standardization committee), and there are still some things that I understand better from having read this book.

    9/26 Kerry Greenwood, Murder in Montparnasse

    It takes place in Melbourne, like most of the other books in the series, but the crime has roots in the Paris of 1918 and 1919.

    9/26 Kerry Greenwood, Away With the Fairies

    “Phryne had a negroni, a fragrant mixture of gin, Cointreau and Campari.” Cointreau? Really? That's certainly not how one would make a negroni today, and I can find no evidence that that's an authentic 1928 recipe either.

    9/25 Kerry Greenwood, Death Before Wicket

    Fortunately you don't have to understand anything about cricket to read this book. Helps if you've heard of Aleister Crowley though.

    9/22 Kameron Hurley, The Mirror Empire

    Complicated book! There are four major viewpoint characters and at least three distinct (and invented) societies and it isn't until around halfway through the book that you see any connection between them, or understand what the title refers to. Then comes trying to figure out which of the many factions (most of them quite ruthless) are conspiring with which others to do what.

    The sequel is coming out next week, and I expect I'll read it.

    9/17 Kerry Greenwood, Raisins and Almonds

    The title of the book comes from a Yiddish lullaby, and indeed this mystery is set in the Melbourne Jewish community of the 1920s.

    9/7 Kerry Greenwood, Urn Burial

    A nice cozy Australian country house murder mystery, with several nods to Agatha Christie.

    9/6 Kerry Greenwood, Ruddy Gore

    Reminds me that it's been too long since I've seen any Gilbert and Sullivan. I think I've only seen a live performance of Ruddigore once.

    9/4 Kerry Greenwood, Blood and Circuses

    8/31 Mary Robinette Kowal, Without a Summer

    The third Glamourist book, set in the Regency world of Georgette Heyer or Jane Austen but with magic. Light and gentle magic, mostly ornamental, mostly thought of the same way as pianoforte or watercolours: an accomplishment for young ladies of good family.

    The title of this book, of course, tells you when this story of romance and conspiracy takes place: 1816, the Year Without a Summer. The abnormal cold (now believed to have been caused by a major volcanic eruption) caused crop failures and famine all over Europe, and England was already dealing with disruption from the early stages of the Industrial Revolution, the rise of Luddism, and an economic downturn following the end of the Napoleonic Wars.

    8/28 Randall Munroe, What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions

    Hidden Feature: The inside of this book has words and pictures. It answers many other important questions, including whether you could jump from a plane with a helium tank and inflate balloons fast enough to slow your fall and survive (yes) and whether you could hide from a supersonic windstorm in Finland (yes, but it won't help).”

    8/22 Lars Vogel, Eclipse IDE: Java Programming, debugging, unit testing, task management and Git version control

    I find it surprising how hard it is to find up to date books or book-like things about Eclipse. As far as I can tell, for example, there is no Eclipse documentation except in the form of a set of Web pages. (One of the questions on the Eclipse FAQ list is “Can I get my documentation in PDF form, please?”, and the answer is that if you really want it badly enough you're welcome to write your own HTML-to-PDF converter and decide which pages to include and what order to put them in.) There are several Eclipse books out there, most from the last decade.

    This book is self-published, based on blog posts and the like, and in places it seems pretty hastily thrown together, but it's reasonably up to date and reasonably comprehensive; it covers essential topics like how Eclipse integrates with other technologies like JUnit and Git. It's the best introduction I've been able to find.

    8/19 Cixin Liu, The Dark Forest (tr. Joel Martinsen)

    Sequel to The Three-Body Problem, one of this year's Hugo nominees. It's the early 21st century and an alien invasion has been detected; the ships will arrive in 400 years. The aliens have a huge technological advantage that humanity probably won't be able to overcome in that time (they're capable of interstellar travel, after all), and they're able to monitor us. This book is about some of the responses.

    This is the second book of a trilogy. All three books have been out in China for some years; the third, Death's End, will be available in English translation in 2016. Interestingly, the American publisher, Tor, didn't choose the same translator for all three: Ken Liu translated the first and third, and Joel Martinsen translated the second. Apparently the schedule for the English publication was too compressed for one person to translate all three.

    8/14 Ernst Jünger, Storm of Steel (tr. Michael Hofmann)

    The war memoirs of Ernst Jünger. Jünger wrote a number of books over the course of his long life (he died in 1998), and this was his first and best known. It was originally published in 1920 (before Sassoon or Graves or Remarque) but republished with major revisions over the decades.

    Jünger served as an enlisted man and a junior officer, and these memoirs reflect that. No grand strategy, just the day to day experience of an infantryman on the Western Front: bad food, rats, artillery bombardments, lice, grenade battles, occupying French villages, wounds, storming British trenches.

    8/11 Kerry Greenwood, The Green Mill Murder

    8/10 Kerry Greenwood, Death at Victoria Dock

    8/9 Kerry Greenwood, Murder on the Ballarat Train

    8/6 Kerry Greenwood, Flying Too High

    The second Phryne Fisher mystery. This one doesn't seem to have been adapted by the TV series.

    8/3 S. P. T. Krishnan and Jose L. Ugia Gonzalez, Building Your Next Big Thing with Google Cloud Platform: A Guide for Developers and Enterprise Architects

    Just what it sounds like: an introduction to the various technologies that make up Google Cloud Platform. It doesn't go into great depth on any of them, but it's a starting point for learning what's out there and how some of the pieces fit together.

    7/30 Kerry Greenwood, Cocaine Blues

    The first Phryne Fisher mystery; I've been enjoying the TV show based on the series.

    7/28 Frances Hardinge, Fly By Night

    Until now, the crowd had been divided between those shouting for the goose and those shouting for the civet. Now it was divided between those who were still enjoying a fine and ribald night out, and those who had noticed that a large and hungry wolf was wandering through their midst. In spite of the wolf's tactful retreat, however, it could not be long before everyone became aware of the situation. Chairs were overturned, at least one pistol was brandished but, thankfully, not discharged. Suddenly the crowd was divided between those who decided it was better to jump into the pit with the goose than stay on the level with the wolf, and those who had a ringside opportunity to see exactly how bad a decision that had been.

    7/22 Charlie Stross, The Annihilation Score

    The latest Laundry book. Noticeably different from the previous ones, partly because of a different main character, Dr. Dominique O'Brien, a.k.a. Agent CANDID, combat epistemologist and violinist, whose husband was the main character of all of the previous books in the serious. CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN is progressing, and the events of this book are considerably more public than those of the other ones.

    7/18 Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me

    Ta-Nehisi Coates is one of The Atlantic's best writers. This book is an extended meditation, in the form of a letter to his son, on what it means to be black in America, what it means to think you're white, and the ways in which a racist caste system is inextricably part of the American Dream.

    7/17 Terry Pratchett, Eric

    Early Discworld. A 14 year old wannabe Faust, attempting to summon a demon, accidentally summons Rincewind instead.

    7/16 Neil Gaiman, American Gods

    I wonder who originated the literary conceit that gods get power from belief. These days it's so familiar that it needs no explanation when it shows up in a book.

    7/13 Frances Hardinge, A Face Like Glass

    Frances Hardinge is a British children's and YA novelist. I haven't read any of her books before, and I only heard about her recently. I'll certainly read more, though! A Face Like Glass is dazzlingly inventive.

    7/9 James S. A. Corey, Nemesis Games

    The latest book in the Expanse series: interplanetary space opera with some elements of military science fiction. The big mysteries from the earlier books aren't answered, and at least one element of the ending raises a new one. This book is mostly about one question from the previous one: how will people behave when there's suddenly a vast expansion in possibility and it makes certain earlier niches obsolete? Badly, most likely, in at least some cases.

    7/7 Robert Graves, The Anger of Achilles: Homer's Iliad

    I picked this up thinking it was a retelling of the story of the Iliad as a novel, or something of the sort. Nope, simpler than that: it's a translation. A somewhat unusual translation, though. It's mostly prose, breaking into verse from time to time, and prose that deliberately has just a slightly archaic feel but that's basically straightforward 20th century English.

    There's a long introduction where Graves explains his goals behind this translation, that he wants it to be undersood by ordinary readers and appreciated as entertainment, that in many cases “the more accurate a rendering, the less justice it does Homer,” where he explains his understanding of the Iliad, which he sees as ironic, satirical, and anti-war, and where he gives some (necessarily very speculative) ideas about origins, social context, and historical basis.

    7/3 Jo Walton, The Philosopher Kings

    This book takes place about 20 years after the events of The Just City, an attempt (sponsored by the goddess Athene) to set up a working city like the one Plato described in the Republic. The attempt wasn't completely unsuccessful, and by the time of The Philosopher Kings there are now several cities with competing ideas about what Plato and Sokrates would have wanted and what justice and the pursuit of excellence truly mean.

    Some characters from The Just City have died or are otherwise absent, and some characters in this book are new (to the extent that there's a main character, it's Apollo's daughter Arete), and the overall themes of this sequel are different. The ending can only be called a deus ex machina, but in a book like this that isn't a bad thing.

    6/30 John Scalzi, The End of All Things

    It's a sequel to The Human Division, and the conclusion of the story. Like The Human Division it was published as a serial, a sequence of four novellas; the book as a whole (i.e. the collection of the novellas) will be released in a month or so.

    If you haven't read any of Scalzi's books, this probably isn't the one to start with. (Although The Human Division wouldn't be a bad start.) If you have, then you probably already have a good idea of whether you'd like this one. I did.

    6/27 Jo Walton, The Just City

    A thought experiment about a thought experiment: an attempt to set up a working version of the city that Plato imagined in the Republic, with time travel, robots, and divine intervention by the goddess Athene. A wild premise, but surprisingly moving.

    6/24 Captain America vs. The Red Skull

    A selection of classic Captain America comics, from 1941 through the mid 90s.

    6/22 Virgil (Publius Vergilius Maro), The Aeneid (tr. John Dryden)

  • Arms, and the man I sing, who, forc'd by fate,
  • And haughty Juno's unrelenting hate,
  • Expell'd and exil'd, left the Trojan shore.
  • Long labors, both by sea and land, he bore,
  • And in the doubtful war, before he won
  • The Latian realm, and built the destin'd town;
  • His banish'd gods restor'd to rites divine,
  • And settled sure succession in his line,
  • From whence the race of Alban fathers come,
  • And the long glories of majestic Rome.
  • I reread the Aeneid (I read it once before, in college, in a less quirky translation) for the obvious reason. One thing I'm still not clear about is to what extent the story is based on pre-existing legends and to what extent Virgil invented it as fiction.

    6/7 Diana Wynne Jones, The Pinhoe Egg

    The last Chrestomanci book.

    6/6 Erik Larson, Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania

    If you're an American you probably remember the Lusitania as one of the events leading up to the US entering the war, along with, for example, the Zimmerman Telegram. True in a sense but misleading; the Lusitania was torpedoed in May 1915 and the US didn't declare war until two years later, April 1917.

    The most interesting question the book raises is why the British Admiralty didn't do more to protect the Lusitania: why it didn't send a destroyer escort, or even send a telegram with unambiguous advice about which course to take. The author suggests conspiracy, probably involving First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill, in the hope that a torpedoed passenger liner with American passengers (or, better yet, a neutral ship) might help bring the US into the war. There's no evidence against that idea, and Naval Intelligence definitely was secretive and even conspiratorial at times, but there's also no evidence for it. The known facts can also be explained by blunders and poor communication, and all of the combatants in the war can furnish plenty of examples of those things.

    5/30 Alaya Dawn Johnson, The Summer Prince

    YA science fiction, set in the future of what's now Brazil. The author was one of the guests of honor at WisCon 39.

    5/27 G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona, Ms. Marvel: No Normal

    The first Ms. Marvel collection. The new Ms. Marvel, that is: Kamala Khan, not Carol Danvers.

    5/25 Massimo Banzi and Michael Shiloh, Getting Started with Arduino (3rd Edition)

    I don't have any specific project in mind, but it seemed like something that would be fun to play with.

    5/22 Cixin Liu, The Three-Body Problem (tr. Ken Liu)

    No, it's not a treatise on advanced topics in classical physics; it's a science fiction book. (In which orbital mechanics is relevant.) Cixin Liu is apparently a well known writer in China, and this is his first book to appear in English translation. I liked it a lot, and I wasn't the only one; it's been shortlisted for a number of awards, including the Hugo. I'm sure it doesn't hurt that the translator is a well regarded author in his own right.

    5/17 Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms

    I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice and the expression in vain. We had heard them, sometimes standing in the rain almost out of earshot, so that only the shouted words came through, and had read them, on proclamations that were slapped up by billposters over other proclamations, now for a long time, and I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it. There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity. Certain numbers were the same way and certain dates and these with the names of the places were all you could say and have them mean anything. Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.

    5/10 Eugenia Cheng, How To Bake π: An Edible Exploration of the Mathematics of Mathematics

    It does have recipes, some of which look pretty good, but it's not a cookbook: it's a mostly non-technical introduction to abstract mathematics, and in particular category theory (the author's specialty), using cooking as metaphor and inspiration.

    I'm not entirely sure who the target audience for this book is. It doesn't assume any previous exposure to category theory or abstract algebra or topology; she introduces groups and equivalence relations, for example, and even explains what mathematical abstraction is and why mathematicians value it. I'm sure that at least some familiarity with mathematics helps, though, and at least a willingness not to be scared of it things like a commutative diagram for the composition of natural transformations. For what it's worth, I'm squarely in the target audience for this book; I like cooking, I've been trying to teach myself category theory for a while, and I've even watched some of the author's YouTube lectures. If that sounds like you, you might enjoy this book too.

    5/8 Kim Stanley Robinson, Sixty Days and Counting

    Third book of the “Science In The Capital” trilogy: a continued climate crisis, and the continued effort of our intrepid heroes in the NSF (and other parts of Washington) to save the world. It was published in 2007, but one part feels very topical: a backpacking trip in the drought-stricken Sierra Nevada.

    5/1 Kim Stanley Robinson, Fifty Degrees Below

    Forty Signs of Rain ends with a flood, of course. (I have the sense that Robinson likes ending books with floods.) Fifty Degrees Below introduces us to the term “abrupt climate change,” and involves a different kind of unnatural natural disaster. (If you've heard of thermohaline circulation, or if you've read An Inconvenient Truth, you'll understand what the title of this book refers to.)

    There's also a romance/thriller subplot, whose connection to the rest of the book I don't really understand. Perhaps it will become clearer in the third book of the trilogy.

    4/20 Kim Stanley Robinson, Forty Signs of Rain

    A near-future novel (near-future relative to 2004, that is, since that's when it was written; maybe it's set in the second term of the McCain administration, or something like that) about the daily practice of science, mostly the unglamorous parts like killing mice and serving on grant application review committees, and the intersection between science and public policy. The context for all of this is the unsuccessful attempt to get the US political system to finally start taking climate change seriously. Nothing happens in Congress, then still more nothing happens. Frustrating for the reader, even more frustrating for the characters.

    First book in a trilogy.

    4/18 L. Frank Baum, The Road to Oz

    “Before they left the great Throne-Room King Evardo added to Ozma's birthday presents a diadem of diamonds set in radium.”

    Wait, radium? Checking dates… Yep, The Road to Oz was published in 1909, and the Curies were awarded the Nobel Prize for the discovery of radium in 1903, and Pierre died in 1906. Radium would have been in the headlines when this book was written. I still think, though, that no matter how elegant and thoughtful a fairyland present it was, that's not the material I would choose for a diadem that I was going to wear.

    4/16 Erin Hunter, Into the Wild

    First book of the endless Warriors series. My daughter is obsessed with them and insisted that I read at least one of them too.

    4/14 Holger H. Herwig, The Marne, 1914: The Opening of World War I and the Battle that Changed the World

    By mid August France had decisively lost the Battle of the Frontiers and was in real danger of losing Paris; by mid September it was clear that the German invasion had failed, and most of the Western Front had settled into essentially the deadly static position of the next four years. What happened in between was the First Battle of the Marne. There have been many books about the battle; this is the only one I've read.

    Much of this book is about the events leading up to the Battle of the Marne, which pretty much means the whole military history of the Western Front for the first month of the War. It emphasizes the decisions of German generals and relies heavily on German primary sources, including some archives that weren't available to historians until German reunification in the late 20th century and that had previously been believed to have been destroyed by Allied bombing campaigns in World War II.

    (If you've only heard one thing about the Battle of the Marne, it's probably the story about the taxi drivers. It did really happen, but it wasn't as important as it's sometimes made out to be: a few hundred soldiers in a battle of millions.)

    4/4 L. Frank Baum, Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz

    “Thank you, my dear, for doing me justice,” responded the Wizard, gratefully. “To be accused of being a real wizard, when I'm not, is a slander I will not tamely submit to. But I am one of the greatest humbug wizards that ever lived, and you will realize this when we have all starved together and our bones are scattered over the floor of this lonely cave.”

    3/28 Sir Terry Pratchett, The Fifth Elephant

    Heh. Somehow I didn't notice when I read this book the first time: when Sergeant Angua (member of the Ankh-Morpork Watch, and a werewolf) has a rather tense visit with her aristocratic family and its ancestral castle in Überwald, it turns out that two of her sisters are named Nancy and Unity.

    3/23 Rick Van Ness, Why Bother With Bonds

    Just what it sounds like: an explanation of why your investments shouldn't be 100% stocks, and an introduction to the basics of investing in bonds.

    3/13 Sir Terry Pratchett, Reaper Man

    A book about Morris dancing, wizards, the lifecycle of shopping malls, agricultural technology, and of course Death.

    3/10 Ted Chiang, Stories Of Your Life and Others

    This collection is no longer the complete works of Ted Chiang. It came out in 2002, and he has now published another six stories beyond the eight in this book. He's not a prolific writer, and I can't think of anyone else in the field who has (and deserves) such a high reputation with so few publications.

    All of the stories in Stories of Your Life And Others are worth reading, and several of them are reminiscent of Borges in raising thought-provoking questions. Practically everything in this book was nominated for, or won, some major award. If you have any interest in science fiction, you really ought to read this book. (And, for that matter, everything else Ted Chiang writes.)

    3/7 Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross, Marvels

    Essentially all of the action is taken from earlier Marvel comics, starting with the origin of the Human Torch in the late 1930s (the original Human Torch, the one that Johnny Storm read about and named himself after) and ending with the death of Gwen Stacy; there are extensive endnotes for those of us who haven't been reading the comics obsessively for the last 75 years. It's about what it would be like to be an ordinary person in this world. It's told from the point of view of a photojournalist who has been covering the people he calls Marvels over the decades, with mixed feelings — sometimes gratitude, sometimes fear and hatred, sometimes resentment that ordinary humans sometimes don't seem to have any role except spectators.

    3/7 Pat Barker, The Ghost Road

    The third book of the trilogy that began with Regeneration, and winner of the 1995 Booker Prize. It alternates between Billy Prior, who returns to France in 1918 for the final days of the War, and W. H. R. Rivers, still caring for wounded and shell-shocked patients in London and also looking back on his prewar work as an ethnologist doing fieldwork with headhunters in Melanesia. Some of the characters, like Rivers, survive the War. Others, like Wilfred Owen, don't.

    2/28 Steven Brust and Skyler White, The Incrementalists

    A small secret society with a sort of immortality that, for the last forty thousand years, has been meddling to make the world just a little bit better than it would otherwise be. The book includes emails between various people with @incrementalists.org email addresses, so I'm happy the authors took the trouble to register the incrementalists.org domain.

    2/23 Pat Barker, The Eye in the Door

    The first book in Barker's trilogy, Regeneration, has three main characters: the soldier and poet Siegfried Sassoon (1886–1967), the anthropologist and psychiatrist W. H. R. Rivers (1864–1922), and the fictional Billy Prior. In this book, although Sassoon and Rivers both reappear, Prior is the main character; he has been found healthy enough to return to the Army, but not to the front lines in France. The book takes place entirely in England, and it's an England full of right-wing paranoia, dark suspicion, surveillance, repression, readiness to treat homosexuals and pacifists and feminists as scapegoats. (There was an insane and well publicized idea that the Germans had been fostering sexual corruption in England for decades and that they had a secret Black Book with 47,000 names in it.) Billy Prior straddles several of these boundaries, both internal and external.

    2/21 Bee Wilson, Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat

    More specifically, a history of the technology we use for cooking and eating — including very ancient technology, like fire and cooking pots and knives, which have varied considerably over the millennia and from place to place, and more recent technology, like refrigerators and measuring cups and sous vide circulators. The technology is of course linked to how we cook and how we live more generally; nobody would have bothered building labor saving devices, for example, until there was a large class of people with money and without servants.

    If you're the sort of person who enjoyed On Food and Cooking, you'll probably like this too.

    2/12 Trenton Lee Stewart, The Mysterious Benedict Society

    My niece and my daughter both loved this book, so I needed to read it too.

    2/8 Pat Barker, Regeneration

    I read Regeneration (and the other two books of Barker's World War I trilogy) some time ago, and I wanted to reread it after reading Siegfried Sassoon's fictionalized autobiography, The Memoirs of George Sherston. Regeneration, too, is a novel, a different fictional take on the story of Siegfried Sassoon and W. H. R. Rivers, Sassoon's psychiatrist, when Sassoon was sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital in 1917 after publicly protesting the War. Naturally it begins by quoting “A Soldier's Declaration” in full.

    One of the things Barker emphasizes in her version, that Sassoon doesn't mention in his, is poetry. Craiglockhart is where Sassoon finished what I believe is his best known collection (Counter-Attack and Other Poems) and also where he met his admirer and protege, Wilfred Owen.

    2/6 Katherine Addison (a.k.a. Sarah Monette), The Goblin Emperor

    Recommended if you like complicated novels of conspiracy and court intrigue. The main character is a disfavored and isolated younger son who suddenly and unexpectedly has to come to court to become emperor, and his new world is almost as bewildering to him as to the reader. Wonder of wonders, it's a fantasy book set in an intricately constructed world and it's not the first book in a trilogy. The author says in her FAQ that “that story is finished.”

    1/29 Miranda Carter, George, Nicholas and Wilhelm: Three Royal Cousins and the Road to World War I

    A joint biography of George V, Nikolai II, and Wilhelm II, and a study of Queen Victoria's principle that good personal relationships and family ties between the monarchs of Europe were the best guarantee of peace. (Spoiler: it didn't work.)

    To start with the genealogy, since I've seen a lot of people getting it wrong: George, Nikolai, and Wilhelm were not all first cousins. George and Wilhelm were first cousins (they were both grandchildren of Victoria, as was Nikolai's wife Alexandra), and George and Nikolai were first cousins (they were grandsons of Christian IX of Denmark), but Wilhelm and Nikolai weren't. Wilhelm signed himself “Your very sincere and devoted friend and cousin Willy” in the Nicky-Willy telegrams of late July 1914, and they were indeed cousins, but more distant. Second cousins once removed on one side and third cousins on the other, or something like that.

    I don't think it's possible to admire either Nikolai or Wilhelm, but one can certainly feel sorry for them. As a good democrat I naturally think that nobody is qualified to be an absolute monarch, and those two were less qualified than most. Wilhelm once dismissed Nikolai as “only fit to live in a country house and grow turnips,” which was quite possibly true, but failed to realize that much the same, or worse, might have been said of himself. You could make a case that Wilhelm was the 20th century's greatest Dunning-Kruger victim. He seems to have been detached from reality in a number of ways, especially involving his assessment of himself, and inheriting the throne very young and being surrounded by flatterers for his whole life can't have helped with his self-awareness. George, born into a constitutional monarchy where he had very little power, was much luckier.

    1/19 Joshua Bloch, Effective Java (Second Edition)

    Advice on Java best practices, and on how to work around various quirks of the language. The second edition adds information about features like generics, enums, and java.util.concurrent, and it removes obsolete items from the first edition that no longer apply in light of newer language features. I imagine anyone who uses Java, including people who read the first edition long ago, should read this book. (But isn't it about time for a third edition now?)

    1/14 Jack Campbell, The Last Full Measure

    1/3 Saladin Ahmed, Throne of the Crescent Moon

    A fantasy novel with a distinctly Islamic flavor. It got a lot of attention, deservedly; it was nominated for the Hugo and Nebula, and won the Locus Award for Best First Novel. Apparently it's the first book of a trilogy. I'll look for the sequels when they come out.

    Matt Austern