What I read in 2017

12/31 George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia

“It will never be possible to get a completely accurate and unbiased account of the Barcelona fighting, because the necessary records do not exist. Future historians will have nothing to go upon except a mass of accusations and party propaganda. I myself have little data beyond what I saw with my own eyes and what I have learned from other eye-witnesses whom I believe to be reliable. I can, however, contradict some of the more flagrant lies and help to get the affair into some kind of perspective.”

12/29 Jonathan Barnes, Aristotle: A Very Short Introduction

As with all of the Very Short Introduction books, this one is written by a genuine expert: Barnes is, among other things, the editor of the Oxford translation of the complete works of Aristotle and of the Cambridge Companion to Aristotle. This short introduction is perhaps a “good parts” version of the Cambridge Companion: it briefly summarizes what is and isn't known about Aristotle's life, discusses some of his most important scientific works and philosopical concepts, and makes the case for Aristotle's importance as a scientist and philosopher. It discusses, for example, Aristotle's idea of substance as a combination of matter and form (by which Aristotle meant something much more down-to-earth and like the ordinary meaning of the English “form” than what Plato meant by ειδος), the doctrine of change, the analysis of valid syllogisms, the distinction between four types of causes, Aristotle's idea of how a science should ideally be developed and presented and to what extent his own works on biology lived up to that ideal.

One thing I'm persuaded of is that I ought to read commentaries on Aristotle as well as the original texts. We have lost well over half of Aristotle's works, including most of the ones that were intended for publication in his lifetime. The couple of dozen books that we still have are largely something like lecture notes; they're often difficult, fragmentary, telegraphic. It helps to see how people over the centuries have tried to unpack them.

12/28 Jennifer Stevenson, Coed Demon Sluts: Pog

The last book of the series, in which certain mysteries about the Succubus Lair and about Hell more generally, hinted at since the first book, are resolved.

12/26 Eliezer Yudkowsky, Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality

I have mixed feelings about the community of people who call themselves “rationalists.” They're a little too sure of themselves for my tastes, and it seems presumptuous for a single community to describe themselves and their own idiosyncratic habits and concerns as “rationalist” as if in contrast to everyone else in the world. They have some blind spots, including around gender. They strike me as philosophically naive. (They take it far too much for granted, for example, that utilitarianism is the only reasonable ethical theory.) They're recognizably part of the same intellectual world that I am, though: they and I have read a lot of the same books, a lot of them come from the same sort of scientific and technical background that I do, we speak the same sort of language, and many of their idiosyncratic habits and concerns are also mine. To the extent I disagree with them it's from a position where there's a lot of common ground.

If that describes you — if you've read both Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone and Gödel, Escher, Bach and maybe the Feynman Lectures, if you think that Bayes's theorem is a useful reasoning tool, if you're interested in speculating about the far future — you'll probably find this Harry Potter fanfic a lot of fun even if you don't take some of the ideas espoused in it as seriously as the author does. I especially enjoyed some of the conversations where characters highlighted the more ridiculous aspects of J. K. Rowling's story.

12/25 Iain M. Banks, Feersum Endjinn

Another non-Culture SF book, and probably the most cheerful and fun of Banks's books. It has a reputation of being difficult to read that's largely undeserved; one of the viewpoint characters spells in a quirky phonetic way, but it doesn't take too long to get used to those sections.

As the cover of the edition I read makes clear, this is also one of those books where you see Banks's love of really big artifacts. Most of this book takes place in an enormous structure, a sort of model of a castle hundreds of times larger than life, larger than mountains: a great hall 30 kilometers end to end, a chapel whose altar is large enough to house an entire city, floors a kilometer high, so that the air of the fifth level is cold and thin, the tenth level is well above the clouds and into the death zone, and the inaccessible upper levels of the central fastness are above the atmosphere. It is of course relevant to the story that this impossible and unnecessarily grandiose thing has existed for so long that the knowledge of how and why it was built has been lost.

12/22 Anthony Molinaro, SQL Cookbook

Just what the title suggests: a series of recipes on how to construct specific SQL queries, some simple and some esoteric. I read it mostly to get less scared of complicated and nested queries.

I'm still astonished by how fragmented SQL is. For almost every recipe in the book the author sets a problem and then answers it by: here's how you do it in DB2, here's how you do it in Oracle, here's how you do it in PostgreSQL, here's how you do it in MySQL. Almost none of them work unchanged across multiple SQL implementations.

12/17 John le Carré, The Spy Who Came In from the Cold

This is the book that (deservedly) made le Carré famous. It's the quintessential Cold War spy novel, certainly the quintessential Berlin Wall spy novel, portraying a world that's shabby, morally ambiguous, filled with betrayal and deceptions within deceptions. The cover of the edition I read was appropriatly grey.

12/15 Eleanor Catton, The Luminaries

I picked this up kind of randomly: it was on sale, and it won the Man Booker Prize a few years ago. Thus far I've enjoyed every Booker winner I've read, and The Luminaries was no exception. It's a novel of the New Zealand gold rush of the 1860s. It's at least partly a mystery story, and it's also a pastiche or parody or reconstruction of a 19th century novel of character. The form, including the length (more than 800 pages, the longest novel ever to win the Man Booker Prize), and the deliberately ornate and archaic language, and the digressive nature with stories within stories, are fun in themselves and also an essential part of the content.

A big part of the book's structure (and its title) comes from astrology. I probably would have picked up more of the structural connections if I knew more about such things.

12/9 Iain Banks, Complicity

The complicity is between certain pairs of characters, and also between the serial killer and the readers. The sections written from the point of view of the murderer are told in second person present tense, and most readers of this book will find the victims just as repulsive as the murderer does.

12/5 Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

Charlotte is probably the most important minor character, and her story is instructive. “Charlotte herself was tolerably composed. She had gained her point, and had time to consider of it. Her reflections were in general satisfactory. Mr. Collins, to be sure, was neither sensible nor agreeable; his society was irksome, and his attachment to her must be imaginary. But still he would be her husband. Without thinking highly either of men or matrimony, marriage had always been her object; it was the only provision for well-educated young women of small fortune, and however uncertain of giving happiness, must be their pleasantest preservative from want. This preservative she had now obtained; and at the age of twenty-seven, without having ever been handsome, she felt all the good luck of it.”

Like much of the book, it's a wonderful mixture of seriousness and irony.

11/30 John le Carré, Call for the Dead

The first George Smiley novel, and le Carré's first novel. It's as much a murder mystery as a spy story, but Smiley and the world around him are recognizably the same as in the later and better known books.

11/29 Tamora Pierce, Briar's Book

Last book of the Circle of Magic quartet.

11/26 Jennifer Stevenson, Coed Demon Sluts: Amanda

11/26 The Odyssey (tr. William Cowper)

I was reminded of the Odyssey partly because we saw a stage adaptation over the summer at Oregon Shakespeare Festival and partly because my daughter's cluster of middle school classes is “Team Odyssey.” I think they'll be reading some Homer toward the end of the year. This time I decided to read a translation I'd never read before.

Cowper's translation is from the late 18th century. On the one hand some of the language is slightly archaic, and Cowper didn't have the benefit of the last 200 years of scholarship. On the other hand Cowper was one of the great English poets, and the translation, into blank iambic pentameter, works well; most of the time it reads naturally, and it has grandeur without giving up being understandable. It's easy to find since it's old and public domain, and it's still worth reading.

11/16 Thomas Nield, Getting Started with SQL

11/12 Kristine Kathryn Rusch, The Runabout

11/11 Hew Strachan (ed.), The Oxford Illustrated History of the First World War (New Edition)

The first edition of The Oxford Illustrated History of the First World War was published in 1998, to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the Armistice. This edition was published in 2014.

This book isn't a narrative history, and it also isn't an introduction. It consists of 24 chapters, each written by a different historian (some of whose books I've read), each on a different topic, beginning with the origins of the War, and ending with the ways in which the War has been remembered in the 99 years since the Armistice. Topics along the way include the war in the Balkans, the role of women in the war, economic mobilization and warfare, the socialist and pacifist movements, war in the air and on the sea, and the final decisive battles of 1918. Good Armistice Day reading.

11/5 Roger Risher and Daniel Shapiro, Beyond Reason: Using Emotions as You Negotiate

Yes, I really am now reading business books. This one is from a leadership training session I went to last week. The “core concerns” framework will probably be a useful way to think about things.

11/4 John Morrill, Stuart Britain: A Very Short Introduction

Reading A Skinful of Shadows reminded me that I don't actually know very much about the English Civil War. This helped.

10/31 Frances Hardinge, A Skinful of Shadows

The English Civil War, with ghosts. What's not to like?

10/28 Harold Abelson and Gerald Jay Sussman with Julie Sussman, Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs (Second Edition)

I read this book before, sort of: when I was at MIT I took 6.001, “Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs,” first semester computer science for VI-3 majors. (There's now an OpenCourseware version.) The class was taught by Abelson and Sussman using their unpublished lecture notes, which later became the first and then the second edition of SICP. It's the only CS class I ever took.

I don't remember exactly what has changed between the zeroth edition of SICP that I read as an undergrad and the second edition that I read now; it's been a while! I'm sure there were many changes, but nothing in the book seemed radically different from what I remember.

From my perspective today this seems like a very idiosyncratic and very MIT-ish notion of what the most important concepts of computer science are. That's not a bad thing, mind you, and if you're only going to read a single book on computer science, or if you're only going to take a single course, this still wouldn't be a bad choice.

10/26 Iain M. Banks, Against a Dark Background

Banks's first non-Culture SF book. I've now read it twice. It has its funny bits (the band of solipsist mercenaries; the Lazy Gun; the Useless Kings) but that's not the dominant tone. More of the book has a feeling of being trapped, both in the main character's personal predicament and in her larger world, even before we get to the point late in the book where we learn a literal meaning of the titular dark background.

The main character, the Lady Sharrow, was born in the year 9965 of her society's calendar. As the decamillennium approaches, history seems to have an oppressive weight and there's a sort of sense of exhaustion. As one character puts it, “every conceivable system of political power management has now been tried; none survive conceptually with any degree of credibility.” Wipe the slate clean and start over? That's happened too, more than once.

One might expect that this would be a Chosen One story where Sharrow redeems the world; that's not what one should expect from Banks. Some of the characters in it, like the religious cult that's trying to kill her, do think they're the heroes of some such story. They're wrong too.

It's harder to find the epilogue than it used to be, but it is still online.

10/24 Carl Hiaasen, Star Island

Like all the other Hiaasen novels I've read, this is a book about south Florida, a book about the intersection of celebrity culture, crime, journalism, corruption, and environmental destruction. It's a mixture of funny, sad, and angry.

10/17 Michael Howard, The First World War: A Very Short Introduction

This isn't the first book I've read about the Great War, or the tenth, so maybe I'm not the target audience for a very short introduction, but I still found it useful; a good summary sometimes helps you see the essentials. Even though I've read a whole book about the Battle of the Marne, for example, the one paragraph about the Marne I read here helped me understand it more clearly. It's a little Anglocentric (it was published by Oxford University Press, after all), but not overly so.

The bibliography looks good too, short and selective. I've only read a few of the books in it.

10/15 Helen Phillips, The Beautiful Bureaucrat

It begins as a novel of impersonal alienation: a woman moves to an unnamed city where she and her husband know nobody, living a marginal existence in sketchy sublets, and starts a job with a huge nameless organization where she performs a seemingly trivial and meaningless piece of bureaucratic drudgery. It seems as purposeless to the reader as to her. Then it gets weirder and more sinister.

10/13 Tamora Pierce, Daja's Book

Third book in the Circle of Magic series.

10/10 Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre

We recently suggested that Al read Jane Eyre, which reminded me that I hadn't reread it for a while. It's worth reading at least once a decade or so; it's a very different book if you read it as an adult than as a kid.

10/5 Tamora Pierce, Tris's Book

9/28 Jennifer Stevenson, Coed Demon Sluts: Melitta

9/27 Iain Banks, The Crow Road

It's a big sprawling book: partly a multi-generational family saga, partly a coming of age story with the usual mixture of sweetness and pain, partly a book about death (which is what the title refers to), partly a murder mystery. This is the second time I've read The Crow Road, and parts of it really stuck with me from the first time I read it.

9/24 Agatha Christie, Cards on the Table

9/22 Richard Kadrey, Sandman Slim

Part urban fantasy, part noir. Lots of different elements mashed up in this book, but it works.

9/19 William Doyle, The French Revolution: A Very Short Introduction

An introduction to the Revolution itself and to the cultural and scholarly responses to it, through the bicentennial and beyond.

9/17 Agatha Christie, At Bertram's Hotel

A late Miss Marple book, published in 1965. Like a lot of late Christie, a big part of the book is the way that postwar England is changed. This one is explicitly about nostalgia, about the desire to find a little piece that you can pretend is still Edwardian.

9/16 Tamora Pierce, Sandry's Book

First book in the Circle of Magic series.

9/15 Sophocles, Electra (tr. E. F. Watling)

We saw the musical version at San Francisco Opera.

9/13 Agatha Christie, A Murder is Announced

9/10 Mary Beard & John Henderson, Classics: A Very Short Introduction

The title is chosen precisely: it's not so much an introduction to the classical world but an introduction to the field of classics, to the way that we (and generations before us) study and engage with the classical world. It begins in the British Museum where we meet the frieze from the temple of Apollo at Bassai, and most of the book is organized around those sculptures, and that temple, and Bassai, and Arcadia. It's a very concrete grounding that lets us explore the kinds of questions that classicists ask.

9/8 N. K. Jemisin, The Stone Sky

The last book in the trilogy that began with The Fifth Season. The first two books in the trilogy both won Hugos. Highly recommended.

9/4 William Shakespeare, The Tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra

9/2 Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History

There have been five major extinction events in the last half billion years. Now, in the Anthropocene era, we're in the middle of the sixth. It's already clear that it's the biggest mass extinction since the end-Cretaceous event that wiped out the ammonites and plesiosaurs and most of the dinosaurs, and we don't yet know the full extent; right now it looks like coral is headed for extinction (and the ecosystems that depend on it), and almost all frogs, and most of the remaining large mammals. We can still hope that the Anthropocene mass extinction won't be as bad as the end-Permian mass extinction, which came very close to ending all multi-cellular life.

8/31 Agatha Christie, Peril at End House

8/27 Yoon Ha Lee, Raven Stratagem

Sequel to Ninefox Gambit.

8/24 Andrew Bowie, German Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction

Is there such a thing as German philosophy? This book doesn't make a good case that there is. It's organized chronologically, describing the thought of writers from Kant through Habermas (via Fichte, Hegel, Marx, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and more), and yes, they're all German, but on the other hand, the book is clear about the ways that the earlier writers engaged with people like Hume and Spinoza, and the author's main interest seems to be in critical theory, in engagement with not particularly German figures like Derrida and Foucault.

Possibly I've just found a subject where trying to summarize dozens of subtle works in a very short introduction isn't a good idea. Kant and Hegel are difficult going, but even if I don't understand a lot of what I'm reading, I'll probably still get more out of reading them than from reading a brief summary about them.

8/21 Iain M. Banks, The State of the Art

A collection of short fiction. About half of the book is taken up by the title novella, “The State of the Art,” Diziet Sma's narrative of Contact's visit to Earth in 1977. Alas, Contact chose to observe instead of intervening. In case anyone from SC is still observing, I hope they'll be willing to reconsider that decision.

8/15 Megan Whalen Turner, Thick as Thieves

Fifth book in the Queen's Thief series. It's the last published so far, but the author says there will be one more.

8/15 Megan Whalen Turner, A Conspiracy of Kings

It takes most of the book for it to become clear just what the conspiracy is.

8/8 Megan Whalen Turner, The King of Attolia

Not the story of Prince Hal and Henry V.

8/8 Megan Whalen Turner, The Queen of Attolia

This book violated my expectations several times, starting very close to the beginning.

8/5 Megan Whalen Turner, The Thief

A YA fantasy book loosely inspired by ancient Greece, and a Newberry Honor Book. It's the first book in a series, and I'm looking forward to reading the rest of them.

8/2 Mur Lafferty, Six Wakes

It's a very cool initial setup. The main character wakes up in the starship's cloning bay, which means her old body has died and she's waking up in a new one. That's routine, at least for her, but she quickly realizes that a lot of other things are a lot less routine. The other five members of the crew are also waking up, meaning that everyone died at once… and the ship AI is down… and there's blood and bodies floating around outside the cloning tanks, meaning that the ship is no longer rotating and also that the crew all died violently… and even though her last memory is of getting on the ship and leaving Earth, the age of the corpses shows that the ship has been underway for decades.

The book doesn't quite live up to the opening, but it's still fun.

8/1 Amanda H. Podany, The Ancient Near East: A Very Short Introduction

Part of the Oxford University Press's excellent “Very Short Introduction” series. Like all the other books in the series that I've read, it does what it says on the tin. It's a great place to start if you've vaguely heard of names like Sargon, Hammurabi, and Nebuchadnezzar, but you're not quite sure how it all fits together.

This very short introduction covers about 3000 years, from ~3600 BCE (the first cities and the first writing) through 539 BCE (the conquests of Cyrus the Great) and focuses on the “cuneiform lands,” Mesopotamia (including Sumer, Akkad, Babylonia, and Assyria), Syria, Elam, and Anatolia.

7/30 David Levine, Arabella and the Battle of Venus

It's 1815. Bonaparte has escaped from exile on the Moon and reestablished himself as emperor on Venus. (Nobody knows why he chose to go to Venus instead of France.) Arabella's fiancé, captain Prakash Singh of the Right Honorable Mars Company, has been captured by the French and is now in a Venusian prison camp, so naturally Arabella needs to sail to Venus as soon as possible to rescue him.

That's all from the first chapter. It goes on from there.

7/28 William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar

We're seeing it at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival this weekend.

7/27 Agatha Christie, The Murder at the Vicarage

The first Miss Marple mystery.

7/26 Daniel Pinkwater, Fish Whistle: Little Short Essays

This and that; they're all short, as promised. Most of them were originally little pieces that he read on NPR. I picked up this book again because my daughter's discussion of spicy food reminded me of “A Hot Time in Nairobi,” but the rest of the book is fun too.

7/24 Béla Zombory-Moldován, The Burning of the World: A Memoir of 1914 (tr. Peter Zombory-Moldovan)

Translated from the Hungarian, of course. The author was drafted in 1914 and served as a junior officer in the Austro-Hungarian army. It's a memoir of 1914 but it was probably written in the late 40s, and it wasn't published until the 21st century.

7/23 Iain M. Banks, Use of Weapons

There's an acknowledgement at the beginning of the book: “I blame Ken MacLeod for the whole thing. It was his idea to argue the old warrior out of retirement, and he suggested the fitness program, too.”

Use of Weapons was the third Culture book published. The story I've heard is that it was written years earlier, but that the original manuscript was much more complicated than the book it eventually became, with many different timelines and a nonlinear structure. Supposedly it was Ken MacLeod who suggested the book's relatively simple structure: two timelines in alternating chapters, one (chapters with Arabic numerals in ascending order) going forward in time and one (Roman numerals in descending order) going backward, both steadily getting closer to what the reader gradually learns to dread before learning the details, the Staberinde and the Chair and the Chairmaker, and the main character's formative use of weapons.

Use of Weapons is widely considered to be the best Culture book. I don't know if I have a single favorite, but it's certainly worth reading and rereading.

7/16 William Shakespeare, The Merry Wives of Windsor

“Sir John, we have had ill luck; we could never meet. I will never take you for my love again; but I will always count you my deer.”

7/15 Charlie Stross, The Delirium Brief

The events of The Annihilation Score made it harder to keep the Laundry's activities secret, and the events of The Nightmare Stacks made it completely impossible. So we start with the glare of publicity, and with a hostile press and political climate and demands that something be done, and then it gets much worse. What do you do when you are attacked from above, when politics has gone mad and a hostile entity controls all governmental levers of power?

7/14 William Shakespeare, Henry V

  • We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
  • For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
  • Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
  • This day shall gentle his condition:
  • And gentlemen in England now a-bed
  • Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
  • And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
  • That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.
  • 7/14 Fred Clark The Anti-Christ Handbook: The Horror and Hilarity of Left Behind (Volume 2)

    The author is an evangelical Christian. What I think make him angriest about Left Behind is that it's ostensibly all about religion, but it's a version of religion that pays no attention to Jesus's life or teachings, that thinks the only important part of the Bible is what it supposedly says about the end of the world. Left Behind pays so much more attention to the antichrist than to Jesus that Fred Clark suggests the religion it espouses should perhaps be thought of as Anti-Christianity.

    7/9 Iain Banks, Canal Dreams

    This is more straightforward than Banks's books tend to be. Also more violent than most, which is saying something.

    7/8 Agatha Christie, The ABC Murders

    7/3 William Shakespeare, The Second Part of King Henry the Fourth: Containing his Death and the Coronation of King Henry the Fifth

  • I know thee not, old man: fall to thy prayers;
  • How ill white hairs become a fool and jester!
  • I have long dream'd of such a kind of man,
  • So surfeit-swell'd, so old and so profane;
  • But, being awaked, I do despise my dream.
  • 7/2 Fred Clark The Anti-Christ Handbook: The Horror and Hilarity of Left Behind (Volume 1)

    A collection of Fred Clark's posts explaining, in great detail, the literary and theological failings of the Left Behind books.

    7/1 Iain M. Banks, The Player of Games

    “This is the story of a man who went far away for a long time, just to play a game. The man is a game-player called ‘Gurgeh.’ The story starts with a battle that is not a battle, and ends with a game that is not a game.”

    6/26 William Shakespeare, The First Part of King Henry the Fourth

  • So, when this loose behavior I throw off
  • And pay the debt I never promisèd,
  • By how much better than my word I am,
  • By so much shall I falsify men's hopes;
  • And like bright metal on a sullen ground,
  • My reformation, glittering o'er my fault,
  • Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes
  • Than that which hath no foil to set it off.
  • I'll so offend, to make offence a skill;
  • Redeeming time when men think least I will.
  • 6/24 Agatha Christie, The Sittaford Mystery

    6/22 Shannon Hale & Dean Hale, The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: Squirrel Meets World

    “Socks are one of the greatest treasures of Midgard, and woe betide any who claim otherwise!”

    6/20 Justine Larbalestier and Sarah Rees Brennan, Team Human

    “New Whitby is not only a vampire city. It never was. Plenty of humans came too. People who had vampires in the family, and people who didn't, people who just arrived here and stayed. My mom's family came over from China to America because of the railroads, moved across America selling stuff to the gold miners, and settled here. You wind up where you wind up, and no place is perfect. There's always something to cope with: too hot, too cold, no night life. In our city's case, it's way too much night life. With fangs.”

    6/18 Mary Roach, Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War

    6/15 Jennifer Stevenson, Coed Demon Sluts: Jee

    6/12 William Shakespeare, The Life and Death of King Richard the Second

    “What subject can give sentence on his king?”

    6/10 Iain Banks, Espedair Street

    6/8 Ralph Kimball and Margy Ross, The Data Warehouse Toolkit: The Definitive Guide to Dimensional Modeling (Third Edition)

    6/7 Agatha Christie, Death in the Air

    6/2 David Foster Wallace, Consider the Lobster

    Essays, mostly former magazine articles. It's a mixed bag. My favorite was the first, “Big Red Son,” about the American porn industry, and my least favorite was the longest, “Up, Simba,” about John McCain's 2000 presidential campaign. I found it remarkably superficial — it hardly even considered the possibility that maybe an important criterion to use when thinking about a politician is what policies he plans to enact. And no, I don't think it was self-aware enough that it was just performance art marking fun of pundits for obsessing about politicians' personalities and demeanor.

    5/31 Jennifer Stevenson, Coed Demon Sluts: Beth

    In which we are introduced to Beth, a middle-aged socialite who signs the contract to become a succubus after her creep husband ditches her and cheats her out of a settlement. It sounds like a pretty good offer: a new body that doesn't age or get sick, lodging, thirty pieces of silver a month, and in exchange “Basically your charter says tempt, tempt, tempt, have sex, have it early, have it often. You get paid on a quota, so you have to score three different times a month, that is, three different individuals. If men don't float your boat, you can try the other fifty-one genders.”

    First in a series, each book of which (I think) focuses on a different member of Chicago's Succubus Lair.

    5/30 Kelly Sue DeConnick (writer) and David Lopez (artist), Captain Marvel: Higher, Further, Faster, More

    The first 6 issues of the 2015 run of Captain Marvel.

    5/29 Garson O'Toole, Hemingway Didn't Say That: The Truth Behind Familiar Quotations

    5/26 Iain Banks, The Bridge

    Banks's third novel, and one of his best. It uses a complicated structure to tell an ultimately simple story, but the structure is necessary and makes the story better.

    Identity is an important point in this novel, and it's a big deal when the main character finally remembers his name. We're never told his name, but this time around I noticed a little joke: if you're paying close attention it turns out we're given enough information to figure out what it must be.

    5/13 Iain M. Banks, Consider Phlebas

    Consider Phlebas was Banks's fourth published novel, his first Culture novel, his first science fiction novel (although you can find hints of SF in some of his earliest books), and the first book he published under what one of his friends described as “a transparent attempt on the World's Most Penetrable Pseudonym record.”

    I was reminded of this book, and reread it, because one of the conference rooms in my new building at work is named “Vavatch Orbital.”

    5/7 Iain Banks, Walking on Glass

    Banks's second book, published 1985; this is the first time I've read it. Reading it, I kept seeing in it aspects of Banks's later books: his love of complicated narrative structure (three different timelines, with no obvious connection); impossibly huge objects; a surreal world that's reminiscent of The Bridge in some ways and Surface Detail in others.

    This book was published without an “M”, but it's possible to see in it that Banks would later become a major science fiction author.

    5/5 Iain Banks, The Wasp Factory

    It's obvious from about the first page that Frank, the main character and narrator, is intelligent, articulate, and a monster. It takes a little longer to become clear that this is very specifically about gender: he turns himself into a monster because that's what he thinks masculinity is. “It occurred to me then, as it has before, that that is what men are really for. Both sexes can do one thing specially well; women can give birth and men can kill.”

    This was Banks's first published book, published in 1984. It's horrifying, gruesome in parts, astonishingly inventive, and funny. (Also true of many of the other books he went on to write.) My copy was printed in 1994 and begins with a very entertaining couple of pages of excerpts from reviews, both the glowing ones and the pans: the Daily Telegraph called it “one of the most brilliant first novels I have come across for some time,” for instance, while the Irish Times wrote that “It is a sick, sick world when the confidence and investment of an astute firm of publishers is justified by a work of unparalleled depravity … The majority of the literate public, however, will be relieved that only reviewers are obliged to look at any of it.”

    This is the second time I've read The Wasp Factory, so I knew where it was going. It's an interestingly different experience than reading it for the first time.

    4/29 J. Jefferson Farjeon, Mystery in White: A Christmas Crime Story

    Farjeon was once well known, according to the introduction. This book was originally published in 1937, and was republished in 2014 for the first time in decades.

    4/29 Victor Serge, Conquered City (tr. Richard Greeman)

    Translated from the French, oddly enough, even though the conquered city in question is Petrograd in 1919–1920 and the author, Victor Lvovich Kibalchich, wrote the book in Leningrad in the early 1930s. It's a novel of the civil war, with no single protagonist other than the city itself, or perhaps the Party, doing whatever it takes to get an exhausted and starving city to hang on for one more month, one more day.

    4/19 William Shakespeare, The Tempest

    Al's fifth grade class is performing The Tempest, so I figured I should reread it.

    4/16 John Scalzi, The Collapsing Empire

    4/11 Marijn Haverbeke, Eloquent JavaScript (2nd Edition)

    It's billed as “A Modern Introduction to Programming.” I don't know what it would be like for someone who had never done any programming before; the first couple of chapters do indeed start off slow, assuming no background knowledge and introducing notions like variables and loops and functions and types, but it gets more difficult pretty quickly. I do recommend this book for someone like me, someone who does know something about programming but not so much about JavaScript. The book covers the core language itself, including common idioms, and also the things surrounding the language, the things that make it interesting: DOM, the browser environment, Node.js, npm. It's a vast subject area, and I'm sure the book omitted lots of things, but I'm now in a much better position to pick them up.

    Eloquent Javascript is available for free online at eloquentjavascript.net, which includes a JavaScript playground that lets you try out some of the code samples, and also as a paperback or a slightly more polished ebook. Recommended in either form.

    4/11 Agatha Christie, Crooked House

    4/8 Ellen Klages, White Sands, Red Menace

    Sequel to The Green Glass Sea, set in the early postwar era (1946 through 1947). As one might guess from the title, there's a V-2 launch right on the first page. Some of the Los Alamos scientists started campaigning for peace after the war, others moved right into other weapons work.

    There's a famous passage toward the end of Gravity's Rainbow about the postwar fate of Captain Blicero, the monstrous Nazi rocket commander: “If you're wondering where he has gone, look among the successful academics, the presidential advisers, the token intellectuals who sit on boards of directors. He is almost certainly there. Look high, not low.” That's part of what this book is about.

    4/7 Ryan North (writer) and Erica Henderson (artist), The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl vol. 5: Like I'm the Only Squirrel in the World

    4/6 Ellen Klages, The Green Glass Sea

    I reread The Green Glass Sea partly because Al recently read it (and liked it) and partly because it was a good fit with Gravity's Rainbow: same war, different superweapon program. Somewhat more personal for me, though. Parts of The Green Glass Sea are set in places I've been to, and two of the minor characters are people I've met.

    4/4 Thomas Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow

    “A screaming comes across the sky.”

    4/1 Steven Brust and Skyler White, The Skill of Our Hands

    Sequel to The Incrementalists. It has a copyright date of 2017, but given publication lead times I imagine the authors finished writing it some time in mid 2016 or earlier. It's more topical now than it was then.

    3/19 Ada Palmer, Seven Surrenders

    Being a CONTINUATION of Too Like the Lightning,
    a NARRATIVE OF EVENTS of the year 2454
    Written by MYCROFT CANNER, at the
    Request of Certain Parties.

    Published with the permissions of:
    The Romanova Seven-Hive Council Stability Committee
    The Five-Hive Committee on Dangerous Literature
    Ordo Quiritum Imperatorisque Masonicorum
    The Cousins' Commission for the Humane Treatment of Servicers
    The Mitsubishi Executive Directorate
    His Majesty Isabel Carlos II of Spain
    And with the consent of all FREE and UNFREE
    Living Persons Herein Portrayed.

    Qui veritatem desiderit, ipse hoc legat. Nihil obstat; nihil obstet.

    Among other things this is a book in which we learn some of the ways in which the seeming golden age wasn't. I'm reminded of Barbara Tuchman (one of the many people living and dead whom the author thanks in the acknowledgments) and her observation about another seeming golden age: that “A phenomenon of such extended malignance as the Great War does not come out of a Golden Age,” and that “all statements of how lovely it was in that era made by persons contemporary with it will be found to have been made after 1914.”

    3/15 Ayize Jama-Everett, The Liminal People

    3/5 Agatha Christie, The Body in the Library

    “The trouble in this case is that everybody has been much too credulous and believing. You simply cannot afford to believe everything that people tell you.”

    3/4 Ellen Klages, Passing Strange

    It's relevant to say that this novella has a beautiful cover, since cover illustrations, and this particular painting, are central. The story is set in San Francisco, partly in 1940 and partly in 2016 or so. (But no time travel, other than the usual method of traveling into the future at the rate of one year per year.) The time and place feel very real; Ellen has put a lot of work into understanding midcentury daily life and lesbian history. The characters feel very real too.

    2/26 Harry G. Frankfurt, On Bullshit

    I imagine most people have heard of this even if they haven't read it: it's a short essay analyzing what the salient characteristics of bullshit are, and in particular how it differs from lying. The author thought there had been little or no previous work on the subject by philosophers, and I haven't heard of anyone disputing that belief in the decade-plus since On Bullshit was published.

    For most people, the fact that a statement is false constitutes in itself a reason, however weak and easily overridden, not to make the statement. For Saint Augustine's pure liar it is, on the contrary, a reason in favor of making it. For the bullshitter it is in itself neither a reason in favor nor a reason against. Both in lying and in telling the truth people are guided by their beliefs concerning the way things are. These guide them as they endeavor either to describe the world correctly or to describe it deceitfully. For this reason, telling lies does not tend to unfit a person for telling the truth in the same way bullshitting tends to. Through excessive indulgence in the latter activity, which involves making assertions without paying attention to anything except what it suits one to say, a person's normal habit of attending to the way things are may become attenuated or lost. Someone who lies and someone who tells the truth are playing on opposite sides, to to speak, of the same game. Each responds to the facts as he understands them, although the response of the one is guided by the authority of the truth, while the response of the other defies that authority and refuses to meet its demands. The bullshitter ignores these demands altogether. He does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.

    2/25 Charlie Stross, Empire Games

    A sequel to the Merchant Princes books, which were originally marketed as fantasy but gradually turned into something else. This book is the start of a new series. It takes place 17 years after the end of the last book, and it's a spy story. One that takes place in several different alternate universes, featuring more than one scary police state.

    2/22 Winston S. Churchill, The World Crisis: The Eastern Front

    This is the fifth and last volume of The World Crisis, published in 1931. It's very unlike the other four volumes. The other four are chronological, but this one goes back to before the beginning, to “re-ascend the streams of history to those sources of the World War which arose in central, eastern and south-eastern Europe,” proceeding through the 19th century to the Bosnian Annexation Crisis, the death of Franz Ferdinand, the July Crisis and the beginning of the War, all the way up to the Russian Revolution and the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, at which point “The Eastern Front was at an end.”

    This volume is also much more a history than a memoir; the other four volumes were always told from Churchill's own point of view as a senior member of the British Government but this book is taken from other primary and secondary sources and it's basically a one-volume history of the War, primarily but not exclusively focusing on the Eastern Front (mostly meaning the parts that involved Russia or the Austro-Hungarian Empire or both), especially episodes like the Battle of Gumbinnen and the Brusilov Offensive that a British reader would have found unfamiliar.

    I'm not completely sure why this volume exists. At a guess it's because, by the late 20s, Churchill had access to sources like Brusilov's and Conrad von Hötzendorf's war memoirs and the official histories of all the great powers including Germany and Austria-Hungary and Russia, and he realized he could tell a more complete story than what he had already written.

    2/19 P. G. Wodehouse and C. H. Bovill, A Man of Means

    2/13 Philipp K. Janert, Data Analysis with Open Source Tools

    Data analysis is a broad topic, and this book is indeed a broad overview. It covers many of the techniques one might need in data analysis, including various graphical techniques (the author emphasizes that when you starting to do exploratory work with a dataset you should do simple things to get some understanding before you pull out high-powered tools, and one of the first things to do when you start looking at a dataset is to look at it), techniques for time series, basic probability and statistics (both classical and Bayesian), reporting systems for business intelligence applications, and machine learning. The book does indeed cover the sorts of open source tools one would expect, like numpy and R and gnuplot and GSL, but a lot of the book also covers things that you can and should do without a computer: guesstimation, dimensional analysis, analytical approximations, and other ways of getting some confidence that the numbers coming out of your computer mean something. The author is frank about which tools and techniques he has found to be useful and which he hasn't; even if you disagree with some of his assessments (as I do; for that matter, I imagine he has changed his mind on a few things in the 7 years since the book was published), it's still helpful to see them. There are also lots of good pointers to more in depth treatments of all of these fields.

    Recommended. The author is an ex-physicist who now works with computers, so he speaks my language, but I think I would have found it a good overview regardless.

    2/12 Winston S. Churchill, The World Crisis: The Aftermath

    The pageant of victory unrolled itself before the eyes of the British nation. All the Emperors and Kings with whom we had warred had been dethroned, and all their valiant armies were shattered to pieces. The terrible enemy whose might and craft had so long threatened our existence, whose force had destroyed the flower of the British nation, annihilated the Russian Empire and left all our Allies except the United States at the last gasp, lay prostrate at the mercy of the conquerors. The ordeal was over. The peril had been warded off. The slaughter and the sacrifices had not been in vain and were at an end; and the overstrained people in the hour of deliverance gave themselves up for a space to the sensations of triumph. Church and State united in solemn thanksgiving. The whole land made holiday. Triple avenues of captured cannon lined the Mall. Every street was thronged with jubilant men and women. All classes were mingled in universal rejoicing. Feasting, music and illuminations turned the shrouded nights of war into a blazing day. The vast crowds were convulsed with emotions beyond expression; and in Trafalgar Square the joy of the London revellers left enduring marks upon the granite plinth of Nelson's column.
    Who shall grudge or mock these overpowering entrancements? Every Allied nation shared them. Every victorious capital or city in the five continents reproduced in its own fashion the scenes and sounds of London. These hours were brief, their memory fleeting; they passed as suddenly as they had begun. Too much blood had been spilt. Too much life-essence had been consumed. The gaps in every home were too wide and empty. The shock of an awakening and the sense of disillusion followed swiftly upon the poor rejoicings with which hundreds of millions saluted the achievement of their hearts' desire.

    Churchill is famous today largely because of his role in one of the aftermaths of the Great War, but this book doesn't get that far. The fourth volume of The World Crisis takes us from the end of the War up through 1928, including the technical problems of demobilisation, the Paris Peace Conference, the Russian Revolution and Civil War, Irish independence and civil war, the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the resurgence of Turkey, the redrawing of the map of the middle east, and the rebirth of Poland. A lot of this book is still memoir, what Churchill saw and did as Minister of Munitions and later as Secretary of State for War and then as Colonial Secretary, but there are also large chunks, including all of the parts about the Paris Peace Conference, dealing with events that Churchill had no direct involvement with.

    The book ends on a note of hope, but, even without knowing what happened in the future, it seems like a fragile hope. It's clear that the task before the national leaders is to prevent another war, that it's “comparatively easy to patch up a peace which will last for thirty years” and more difficult to create a longer term peace, and that it's impossible to tell whether they've succeeded in even the easy part. The book, as Churchill writes in the first page or two of the preface, is “unhappily for the most part a chronicle of misfortune and tragedy.” Some of the failures were obvious at the time, and others have become clearer over the century since then.

    2/11 Alison Bechdel, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic

    We just saw the musical at the Curran in San Francisco (recommended), so naturally I wanted to reread the book.

    2/8 Agatha Christie, And Then There Were None

    Originally published (in 1939) under an unfortunate name. I reread it because I recently watched the 2015 miniseries, which was well done and largely faithful to the book.

    2/4 Matthew Kirk, Thoughtful Machine Learning with Python

    I didn't like it very much, I'm afraid. I was hoping for a practical guide to the tools that have now become industry standard (e.g. numpy and Pandas and scikit-learn), but this book was too unfocused, too light on tutorial and practical guidance, with too much digression and throat-clearing about the benefits of OOP and testing. Worse, too many things in it, including some of the digressions, were only half right. A chapter entitled “Probably Approximately Correct Software” is an exhortation about OOP and TDD and the LSP and refactoring, and has nothing to say about Valliant's PAC learning paradigm. The “curse of dimensionality” is a thing, yes, but explaining it as “all of the data points become chaotic and move away from one another” isn't helpful. It is indeed an old saw that economics is “the dismal science,” but not because “we're trying to approximate rational behaviors.” Despite the fact that this book uses Python the author seemed more comfortable with Ruby, and a couple of times even referred to Python modules or packages as gems.

    2/2 Agatha Christie, After the Funeral

    A Poirot novel from the early 50s, also published as Funerals are Fatal.

    1/25 Winston S. Churchill, The World Crisis: 1916–1918

    The third volume of Churchill's WWI history/memoirs, taking us through the end of the War. This one focuses much less on naval matters (although it does have two chapters on Jutland, because how could it not?), since Churchill, as punishment for the Gallipoli disaster, was forced from his position as First Lord of the Admiralty in mid 1915.

    This is the book that includes Verdun and the Somme and Passchendaele, and Churchill is just as scathing about the tactics of the British and French generals as any anti-war poet. (In fact one chapter even uses a line from Siegfried Sassoon as an epigraph.) Some of this was self-serving, as Churchill was writing with his reputation in mind, arguing that his earlier ideas were right and that there should have been more effort put into tanks, or forcing the Dardanelles, or exotic amphibian attacks, instead of attempting again and again to send infantry in frontal attacks against fortified positions defended with barbed wire and concrete and machine guns. Even if it can't be taken at face value, though, in retrospect it seems largely right.

    The anatomy of the battles of Verdun and the Somme was the same. A battlefield had been selected. Around this battlefield walls were built—double, triple, quadruple—of enormous cannon. Behind these railways were constructed to feed them, and mountains of shells were built up. All this was the work of months. Thus the battlefield was completely encircled by thousands of guns of all sizes, and a wide oval space prepared in their midst. Through this awful arena all the divisions of each army, battered ceaselessly by the enveloping artillery, were made to pass in succession, as if they were the teeth of interlocking cog-wheels grinding each other.

    1/11 Miran Lipovača, Learn You a Haskell for Great Good!

    An introductory Haskell tutorial. A big part of the book is basically about showing that monads aren't so scary.

    1/10 Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes

    “I fear that Mr. Sherlock Holmes may become like one of those popular tenors who, having outlived their time, are still tempted to make repeated farewell bows to their indulgent audiences. This must cease and he must go the way of all flesh, material or imaginary … And so, readers, farewell to Sherlock Holmes! I thank you for your past constancy, and can but hope that some return has been made in the shape of that distraction from the worries of life and stimulating change of thought which can only be found in the fairy kingdom of romance.”

    This collection was the third time that Doyle attempted to write a last Sherlock Holmes story. This time he succeeded: The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes was published in 1927, and Doyle died in 1930.

    1/8 George O'Connor, Ares: Bringer of War

    And for a graphic novel about the god of war, what other war could it be? This is basically a much abridged Iliad, starting with the wrath of Achilles and ending with the death of Hector, focusing on the role of the gods. The reason for Achilles's refusal to fight is left vague; Briseis isn't mentioned.

    1/8 The Iliad (tr. Caroline Alexander)

  • Wrath—sing, goddess, of the ruinous wrath of Peleus' son Achilles,
  • that inflicted woes without number on the Achaeans,
  • hurled forth to Hades many strong souls of warriors
  • and rendered their bodies prey for the dogs,
  • for all birds, and the will of Zeus was accomplished;
  • sing from when they two first stood in conflict—
  • Atreus' son, lord of men, and godlike Achilles.
  • 1/1 Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, His Last Bow

    I imagine the title story in this collection was intended yet again as the last Sherlock Holmes story. It wasn't — there was one last collection in the late 20s — but it is the last story in internal chronology. Holmes, now in his 60s, is pulled out of retirement for one last case. The story was written in 1917 and takes place on 2 August 1914, and Holmes's case is just what you'd think given those dates.

    1/1 George O'Connor, Aphrodite: Goddess of Love

    Sixth book in the Olympians series of graphic novels, about half of which is Aphrodite's origin story (roughly the version from the Theogony). As the cover illustration suggests, this book also includes the wedding of Peleus and Thetis and the Judgment of Paris. Turns out it's a bad idea to have Eris, goddess of discord, as one of your wedding guests, but leaving her off the guest list isn't a great idea either.

    1/1 George O'Connor, Poseidon: Earth Shaker

    Fifth book in the Olympians series of graphic novels. Among other things it includes the the founding of Athens, the cyclops episode from the Odyssey, and Theseus and Ariadne and the Minotaur.

    Matt Austern