What I read in 2019

12/31 Agatha Christie, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

I last read this decades ago. I remembered who the murderer was, and you can see the hints when you read it with that knowledge.

12/28 Ellie Alexander, Meet Your Baker

It was fun reading a book set in Ashland featuring a murder that involves the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, but I didn't like the mystery itself very much. I didn't try the recipes.

12/26 Bill Chambers & Matei Zaharia, Spark: The Definitive Guide

An introduction, and to a lesser extent a reference guide, to the Spark distributed computation system. As a reference guide it's necessarily incomplete, since Spark is still evolving quickly.

The part of this book I liked the best was also the longest and most detailed, the guide to using the structured APIs, Spark SQL, Datasets, and DataFrames. Both the APIs themselves, and the book's explanation of them, were well done. The part that was most familiar to me was the one brief chapter on GraphX. The part I liked the least was the several chapters on machine learning. I have no objection to how Spark handles machine learning, but the book's explanation of it was uninformative and repetitive: a bunch of examples of how to train one model after another, where all of the examples were the same except for the model name and one or two methods, and none was described in any depth. The authors would have done better to shorten that section and just include a table of the different models, or else lengthen that section into a whole other book that went into more detail about machine learning theory. But even if you end up skipping that whole section, the rest of the book is a good introduction to Spark.

12/26 Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

I reread Pride and Prejudice because we recently saw a musical adaptation at TheatreWorks. Alas, I didn't like the musical, although I've liked all of the other TheatreWorks productions I've seen. The tone of Pride and Prejudice is subtle wit, not farce. Elizabeth is playful, lively, and frank, not impetuous, rebellious, or rude. She certainly isn't a 21st century feminist.

12/17 Tamsyn Muir, Gideon the Ninth

Charlie Stross's cover blurb reads “Lesbian necromancers explore a haunted gothic palace in space! Decadent nobles vie to serve the deathless emperor! Skeletons!” Basically right, yes, even though not all of the necromancers are lesbian, not all of the lesbian characters are necromancers (the main character, Gideon Nav, is a swordswoman and an indentured servant to the House of the Ninth, and thinks necromancy is creepy), and not all of the nobles are decadent. It's just as fun as the blurb makes it sound. It's a story with spells and spaceships and an interstellar empire, and it's a story about mysteries and complicated politics and conspiracies and ancient secrets, and it's almost a classic jock/nerd romance. First book of the Locked Tomb trilogy, and I'm looking forward to the next two.

12/14 Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain (tr. John E. Woods)

The story of the young engineer Hans Castorp at the International Sanatorium Berghof in Davos, along with his cousin Joachim Ziemssen, the enigmatic Frau Chauchat, the grand personality Mynheer Peeperkorn, and the two scholars who contend for Castorp's soul, the humanist Herr Settembrini, the believer in progress and the Enlightenment and the dignity of man, and the caustic Herr Naphta, the fanatical arch-reactionary who longs for a Red Terror. It's a very long book, part bildungsroman and part farce, symbolist if not allegorical but also in parts realist and minutely descriptive, with many allusions, some of which I noticed and more of which, I'm sure, I didn't. The magic mountain evokes Goethe's Faust and also Nietzsche's description of Olympus, some of the literary techniques are deliberately Wagnerian, the intellectual duel between Settembrini and Naphta is reminiscent of the distinction between the Appollonian and the Dionysian.

It's also, as Mann says on the first page of the foreword, a story of what Mann describes with a little bit of irony as the long-ago vanished age before a certain turning point, “before the war, then, though not long before,” where the isolated tuberculosis sanatorium is like a microcosm of Europe. The exact time is deliberately vague and dreamlike, since a magic mountain, after all, is a place where one soon stops thinking about time as a linear thing and where years pass like days, but it's clear that the story begins some time in the first decade of the 20th century. There is of course an epilogue in the mud of Flanders, because how could there not be?

I'd read The Magic Mountain once before, long ago, and hadn't remembered much about it — most of the major characters and a few events, but events aren't really the point. It's a novel of ideas more than anything else. I was reminded of it on my most recent trip to Switzerland. I started reading the original English translation, by Helen Lowe-Porter, but stopped reading it halfway through when I got to the Walpurgisnacht chapter and found a crucial conversation between the German Hans Castorp and the Russian Clavdia Chauchat conducted entirely in French, which Lowe-Porter chose to keep as eight pages of untranslated French. I ended up liking Woods's translation better for other reasons too; it seemed lighter. (I also learned that Lowe-Porter's great grandson is Boris Johnson, but I suppose one can't blame her for that.)

11/24 Agatha Christie, The Secret of Chimneys

Very weird. It's basically an Edwardian thriller, with elements of a Ruritanian romance (with the role of Ruritania played by a fictional Balkan state called Herzoslovakia), except of course that Christie wasn't an Edwardian writer. This book was published in 1925, which makes no sense. There's barely a hint in the book that there was a war less than a decade ago, and not the slightest hint that it might have had some effect on the Balkan political intrigues that drive the plot. Was this a trunk novel from 1909 or something that Christie published later with minimal updating?

11/23 Gene Wolfe, The Best of Gene Wolfe

The subtitle is “A Definitive Retrospective of His Finest Short Fiction.” Wolfe chose the stories for this collection, so at any rate they're the ones that he thought were his best work as of 2009. I'd read a few of them before, but only a few. My favorite was “The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories.”

11/18 Iain Banks, The Steep Approach to Garbadale

This is the second time I've read The Steep Approach to Garbadale. The first time was in 2010, not too long after its publication in 2007. This time I knew what the dark family secret was; I was looking for clues to it earlier in the book but didn't find more than hints, except, as the main character realizes once he learns it, that it's what made everyone else's behavior make sense.

Like a number of Banks's other books, this is basically a peculiar sort of coming-of-age book: a somewhat lost character begins to understand himself and begins to grow up, some time in his mid 30s. Also like a number of Banks's other books, the main character (and the author) isn't shy about his political views. “Me? Oh, I wouldn't move to the States now any more than I'd have moved to Germany in the mid-Thirties. But that's just me. If I was you, I'd probably go. You're not Muslim, which is the new Jewish, so you'll probably be safe.”

11/15 Jacqueline Winspear, Pardonable Lies

The third Maisie Dobbs novel, set in 1930: the scars of the first war are still everywhere, and none of the characters has come close to recovering from it, but those who are paying attention to German electoral politics are beginning to fear that there may be a second.

The general rule in a detective novel is that when a body is burned beyond recognition, or where there is no body, then you should assume that the person in question isn't really dead. But does that rule apply in the case of a Royal Flying Corps pilot (average life expectancy: 69 flying hours) whose de Havilland “flaming coffin” was shot down behind enemy lines in 1917 and crashed in a fiery wreck? Or to an officer whose family got a vague condolence telegram from the War Office in 1918 and whose surviving sister, years later, hires Maisie to look through the records and find out where he died?

11/11 Taylor Downing, Secret Warriors: The Spies, Scientists, and Code Breakers of World War I

I mainly picked this book up because I'd just read The Alice Network, but, despite the title, Secret Warriors has almost nothing about spies — unless you count the spies of Room 40 who intercepted and decrypted German wireless transmissions, or the pioneers of photo-intelligence analysis who developed the techniques of turning aerial photographs into maps of trench lines and artillery locations. This was much more about science and technology than about the Great Game in the old fashioned sense. Even the most famous spy of all, Mata Hari, barely got a mention.

Not too disappointing, though; it's a fascinating enough subject in its own right. The scientific and technological progress just before 1914, and during the course of the War even more, is astonishing. It was the first war to be fought with tanks, or airplanes (powered flight began in 1903; by 1918 there were specialized fighters, heavy bombers, and battles with hundred of planes on each side), or oil-powered warships, or bicycles. It was the first war with scientific advisory boards, or government ministries of propaganda (not yet a dirty word). It was the first major war when medical treatment was advanced enough that more soldiers died of battlefield wounds than of disease. In science and technology, as in so many other ways, it was a turning point.

11/3 Kate Quinn, The Alice Network

A historical novel spanning both world wars, centered on a female spy ring in occupied France in World War I. Several of the main characters are real people, including Louise de Bettignies (1880–1918), alias Alice Dubois, a British spy who created and ran what might have been the largest spy network of the war. Alas, as is often the case with great spies, her biggest intelligence coup had no effect: she discovered and reported detailed information about the upcoming German attack of Verdun, but the French commander on the scene didn't believe it.

I was confused about the geography of how de Bettignies reported the information she gathered in occupied Lille to the British authorities. The novel seems to suggest that she and her agents either crossed the front lines into unoccupied France or travelled to neutral Belgium, but surely neither of those things could be possible.

11/2 Agatha Christie, Hallowe'en Party

One of the last Hercule Poirot books, published 1969.

10/31 Prit Buttar, Collision of Empires: The War on the Eastern Front in 1914

“Eastern Front” is the conventional term but perhaps it would be more accurate to talk about Eastern Fronts, plural. This book is about three very separate fronts, which for the most part only had anything to do with each other when they competed for resources: Russia and Germany, Russia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Austria-Hungary and Serbia. There were more eastern fronts later, after the Ottoman Empire joined the War.

Collision of Empires is a military history, giving precise details of things like the movements of individual units in all of the important Eastern Front battles of 1914. I was mostly struck by two things. First: it's not quite right to think of Tannenberg as a stroke of military genius by Hindenberg and Ludendorff. (Or by Hoffmann, or von Prittwitz, or von François, or whoever.) German military planners had always assumed that Russia would send two armies, one north of the Masurian Lakes and one south, and it was always the plan to defeat them separately and use the railway system to move the 8th Army from north to south. What made Tannenberg possible was much more about the incompetence of the Russian generals than the brilliance of the German ones: the commander of the Russian 1st Army failed to pursue and maintain contact with a retreating enemy, which made it possible to send the 8th Army south without the Russians noticing. Second: the two great powers for whom the War was most purely a war of choice were Austria-Hungary and Russia, and they're also the two powers who should have been desperately trying to avoid war at all cost. Neither of them had the logistics capacity or the political stability to support a war against any serious adversary. Both countries were destroyed by the War, and their leaders should have been able to see that that's what would happen.

10/24 Donna Leon, Death and Judgment

As with several of the previous books in this series, a big part of the point is how corrupt the system is that the detective works in.

10/19 Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

“If we were a people much given to revealing secrets, we might raise monuments and sacrifice to the memories of our poets, but slavery cured us of that weakness. It may be enough, however, to have it said that we survive in exact relationship to the dedication of our poets (including preachers, musicians and blues singers).”

10/17 Nico Josuttis, C++17: The Complete Guide

“Complete” is probably an overstatement, considering that the C++17 standard is more than 1600 pages long, but this book is pretty comprehensive. It's basically about the delta between C++11/C++14 and C++17, one chapter for each major change.

10/1 Adam Grant, Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World

A book written for a popular audience by a management professor, about — well, a wide variety of subjects, really, but roughly speaking they all have something to do with how new ideas do or don't result in effective change and what kinds of people are most effective as change-makers. Sheryl Sandberg blurbs it enthusiastically as a book that “might just change the way you live your life.” Big overstatement, at least in my case, but it's pretty good and it might even have some useful advice.

As is typical of books of this sort, it presents a mixture of social science research and stories. I generally found the stories more compelling, because each time I read about some study or other I kept wondering, in light of the many well publicized replication failure of recent years: was this p-hacking? are we dealing with a garden of forking paths? how sure are we that we can generalize from an observation of 20 psychology undergrads to a more sweeping theory of human behavior? The story I found most interesting was about the failure of the Segway: why were so many experienced investors and inventors convinced that something that ended up being somewhere between a niche product and a fad would reshape the world? We got a partial explanation, including ideas about how Kamen might have done better, but I bet there's more to know.

9/29 John Steinbeck, The Pearl

One of the many books that everyone reads in junior high but I somehow never got around to. I read it now because Al just finished it for English class.

9/23 Jacqueline Winspear, Birds of a Feather

Second book in the Maisie Dobbs series. It takes place in 1930, a year after the first; the main character is still working in London as a psychologist and private investigator. The book begins with a missing person case, which turns out to be linked to several murders, which in turn are bound up with unresolved trauma from the War.

I liked the characters, but I was disappointed that it took Maisie so long to see the significance of the feathers. If I know about the feathers after more than a century, it ought to be glaringly obvious to someone who actually served as a nurse just behind the front lines in France.

9/21 Randall Munroe, How To: Absurd Scientific Advice for Common Real-world Problems

You probably already know whether you want to read this book. If you know and like xkcd, then you probably do want to read How To. As with the earlier What If, it's a fun combination of absurd ideas and real science. A fair number of the pieces actually end up being about how you can use simple science and appropriately simplifying models and approximations to get surprisingly good answers to seemingly complicated problems.

9/16 Wilkie Collins, The Moonstone

One of the classic Victorian detective novels. Published in 1868, it's arguably the first detective novel written in English. Sherlock Holmes must have been inspired in part by Sergeant Cuff and his attention to seeming trifles.

Janet pointed out something strange about this book: all of the English characters in the book recognize that the original crime was decades in the past, when the wicked John Herncastle stole the diamond in Seringapatam in 1799, and they clearly recognize what he did as a crime, but they don't seem to make much of that fact. It doesn't occur to any of them to say that Rachel Verinder has no real claim to it, and that it ought to just be given back to the three mysterious Indians.

9/9 William Shakespeare, Titus Andronicus

Yes, it deserves its reputation as splatter-fest, revenge upon revenge upon revenge. It begins with a gruesome human sacrifice and proceeds through rape, mutilation, cannibalism, and more. I don't know what the final body count ends up being, but it's high.

9/9 A. C. Grayling, Wittgenstein: A Very Short Introduction

Four chapters: a mini-biography, a guide to the Tractatus and to Wittgenstein's late philosophy, and an appraisal of Wittgenstein's legacy and reputation. A somewhat negative appraisal, actually. The author writes that Wittgenstein has not, in the end, turned out to be very influential on today's philosophy, and argues that this is partly because of Wittgenstein's lack of clarity, his oracular and metaphorical style, and also that once you do the work of understanding what Wittgenstein meant, there isn't all that much there.

9/8 Iain M. Banks, The Algebraist

Not a Culture novel, but space opera on the grand scale. It's a standalone novel, and one of my favorites of Banks's science fiction books.

One of the things that makes it especially fun is the way that it plays with different time scales. There's wormhole-based instantaneous interstellar travel, and also the “slow” relativistic travel taken by two different invasion fleets that will both arrive in a newly disconnected system a couple centuries after the fleets were launched, and another species that operates on a very different timescale; they settled the galaxy (the habitable planets, that is: the gas giants) long before the Earth and Sun existed, and see nothing wrong with taking a few thousand years for a trip between systems. It takes about a third of the way through the book before you piece together the different timelines and figure out how it all fits together.

9/5 Poul Anderson, Three Hearts and Three Lions

A short standalone fantasy novel from the early 60s, with connections to both the Carolingian cycle and Niels Bohr.

9/2 Iain Banks, Raw Spirit: In Search of the Perfect Dram

In principle this is a book about whisky: driving around Scotland, visiting distilleries, drinking whisky, and writing about it. And there is both information and opinion about whisky, although of course there is no perfect dram and neither Banks nor his editor expected there to be. Banks's single favorite, if he had to pick one, would be the Glenfiddich 21-year Havana Reserve, but he also loves the three south-coast Islay malts, Ardbeg, Lagavulin, and Laphroaig, and also writes that Macallan is one of the best, especially the older expressions (“this is a whisky that generally just gets better and better as it gets older, and while you will pay through the nose for the privilege, at no point are you going to get ripped off, paying more for less”), and also that “if you can't find a Bowmore to fall in love with, you may have to consider very seriously the possibility that you're wasting your money drinking whisky at all,” and so on. As he says toward the end, the variety of single malt Scotch is a big part of what to value about it.

But this is a very digressive book, and the whisky itself is distinctly in the minority by word count; the digressions are really the point. If you're looking for a history of Scotch whisky or a book of tasting notes, you should read something else. It's about driving around Scotland, and Banks's favorite landscapes and Great Wee Roads and Wee Daft Roads and the vehicles he drove on them (the ones I remember are a Land Rover Defender, a BMW M5, a 1965 Jaguar, a Porsche 911, a Bentley, a Honda VFR800 bike; Banks was a serious petrol-head), and various and sometimes sober conversations and escapades with his friends, and reminiscences about his happy and normal childhood (no, The Wasp Factory was not autobiography), and his other books and the life of a writer (including a genuinely useful answer, both to readers who are tempted to ask that trite question, where do you get your ideas, and to writers who regularly get asked it), and his love of explosions, and his contempt for George W. Bush and for Bush's enabler, Tony Blair. The only succinct summary is that it's a book about writing a book about whisky.

9/2 Jo Walton, An Informal History of the Hugos: A Personal Look Back at the Hugo Awards

This was originally published as a series of posts on tor.com, each one for a single year of the award from 1953 through 2000. (She stopped then partly because she wanted some distance so she could say something about which works have stood the test of time, and partly because that's around when she started getting published and getting nominated for and winning Hugos herself.) It really is a personal look, as the subtitle suggests; she's not trying to be authoritative and she doesn't feel compelled to reread something she disliked the first time or to read something she's pretty sure she wouldn't like. As she says, if she doesn't remember anything about a work then that's data in itself, just as it's data if it's out of print.

The question she goes back to is to what extent the voters and nominators did a reasonable job, to what extent the Hugo finalists are a good picture of where the genre was that year. Sometimes she goes into a bit of history, and sometimes the folks in the comment section (the highlights of which are reprinted in this book) help with it. It's good reading if you're interested in science fiction and fantasy, and unsurprisingly it was nominated for a Best Related Works Hugo itself. It reminded me of a lot of good stories I need to read or reread, and the only sad thing is that it's sometimes hard to track down the short fiction.

8/26 Terry Pratchett, The Shepherd's Crown

The last Tiffany Aching book. Also Sir Terry's last book, published posthumously.

8/24 Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos H. Papadimitriou, art by Alecos Papadatos and Annie Di Donna, Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth

The story of Bertrand Russell and the other people who created mathematical logic, people like Alfred North Whitehead, Georg Cantor, David Hilbert, Gottlob Frege, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Kurt Gödel, told in the form of a graphic novel. It's self referential and doubly framed: the story of writing the book, which is the story of Russell giving a lecture in 1939, in which he tells his story. I suppose self-reference is inevitable in a book about logic that includes Gödel's incompleteness theorem, Cantor's diagonalization argument, and Turing's paper on computability theory.

8/23 Jane Gardam, Last Friends

“The Titans were gone. They had clashed their last. Sir Edward Feathers, affectionately known as Old Filth (Failed In London, Try Hong Kong) and Sir Terence Veneering, the two greatest exponents of English and International Law in the engineering and construction industry and the current experts upon the Ethics of Pollution, were dead. Their well-worn armour had fallen from them with barely a clatter and the quiet Dorset village to which they had retired within a few years of each other (accidentally, for they had hated each other for over fifty years) mourned their passing and wondered who would be distinguished enough to buy their houses.”

Old Filth is about Filth himself, and The Man in the Wooden Hat is about his wife Betty. Last Friends, the third book in the trilogy, is more about Veneering than anyone else.

8/19 Agatha Christie, The Pale Horse

8/18 Iain Banks, Dead Air

Copyright 2002, and that's also roughly when most of it takes place. The first chapter is dated very precisely: 2001-09-11. The chapter ends when everyone's phones start ringing at once, probably around 2pm London time. That's not so much what the novel is about, though; more like setting the tone. It's mostly about a clever and callow and impulsive man who may manage to escape the worst consequences of his own self-destructive behavior and may even learn something.

8/14 Max Tegmark, Our Mathematical Universe

Max Tegmark and I overlapped when we went to grad school at UC Berkeley, but we didn't know each other. (Perhaps because he hung out in Campbell Hall while I was mostly in Le Conte and LBL.) He's a theoretical astrophysicist who's made some important discoveries by extracting insights from experimentalists' data, and he now teaches at MIT. In other words, he's not writing from a position of ignorance.

I expected to find this book a mixture of the informative and the annoying, and I did. Part of it is an introduction to cosmology (i.e. what we've learned about the universe and our place in it) and part of it is about Tegmark's own research. I learned a lot from that part. I was no cosmology expert even when I was in grad school, and the field has made a lot of progress since then. The unifying theme in the book, though, is multiverses. Tegmark really likes multiverses. He distinguishes between four kinds of multiverses, running from the prosaic to the somewhat speculative to the wildly speculative to what one might politely call eccentric.

The prosaic multiverse just comes from distinguishing between the observable universe (a spherical region of space surrounding Earth, consisting of everything close enough that light has had time to get to us in the 14 billion years since the Big Bang) and the universe (certainly larger than the observable universe, and there's no reason to think it's finite), meaning that the universe contains many (probably infinitely many) regions the size of our observable universe. One of the more speculative versions comes from inflationary cosmology, which in most models seems to lead to eternal inflation (i.e. inflation ends only in isolated pockets), combined with the string theory landscape (i.e. the speculation that string theory is the true high-energy description but that it has many different low-energy solutions), leading to the conclusion that there are an infinite number of universes each with its own version of physical laws. It's speculation piled on speculation, but none of the individual steps is ridiculously implausible.

The part that's most eccentric and idiosyncratic, which takes up about a third of the book, is what Tegmark calls the Level IV Multiverse or the Mathematical Universe Hypothesis. I found it interesting but completely unconvincing. The basic idea is that “Our external physical reality is a mathematical structure,” and furthermore (this is where the multiverse comes in), every mathematical structure is a physical reality. Possibly I would find it more plausible if I read Tegmark's papers rather than a popularizing book, but from what I saw I didn't buy it. I don't think Tegmark was sufficiently clear about what he means by “mathematical structure” (A particular function, like an assignment of an antisymmetric 4-tensor to every point of space-time? An equation like Maxwell's Equations or the Standard Model Lagrangian? A group like SU(5)? A graph? A category like GRP, the category of groups and homomorphisms?). More importantly, I don't think he was sufficiently clear about what he means by “is.” Or to be a bit less cute, he fails to say clearly how whatever it is he believes about the relationship between mathematics and reality differs from what everyone else believes. Surely that's a necessary precondition to arguing that your belief is the truer one! At times he seems to be minimizing the difference and arguing that the Mathematical Universe Hypothesis is tame and unremarkable and at times he seems to be arguing that it has radical implications, which is a warning sign of what John Holbo has dubbed the two-step of terrific triviality: equivocating between “something so strong it is absurd and so weak that it would be absurd even to mention it.”

8/14 Alison Bechdel, Dykes To Watch Out For

The first collection of comic strips, from the days when they were all one-offs and the author hadn't yet introduced any of her continuing characters. It includes her most famous strip, the one that introduced what's now known as the “Bechdel Test.” (Although Bechdel herself has always attributed the idea to her friend Liz Wallace.)

8/13 Terry Pratchett, I Shall Wear Midnight

“When I am old, I shall wear midnight. But not today.”

8/10 Terry Pratchett, Wintersmith

The first chapter makes a lot more sense after you've read the rest of the book.

8/3 Agatha Christie, A Caribbean Mystery

One of the later Miss Marple books, published 1964.

8/1 Terry Pratchett, A Hat Full of Sky

The second Tiffany Aching book. This one is a little more connected to other events on Discworld; Granny Weatherwax is a major character, and Death makes an appearance.

7/26 Terry Pratchett, The Wee Free Men

Al just finished this, so I figured it was time for me to reread it too.

7/23 Iain M. Banks, Look to Windward

For those who don't remember their T. S. Eliot, the epigraph explains the title.

  • Gentile or Jew
  • O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
  • Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.
  • So the title establishes a link with Banks's first Culture novel, Consider Phlebas. It's not a sequel, though; the link is more thematic. Look to Windward is largely about the aftermath of war. Most of it takes place on Masaq' Orbital, where the population is waiting to see the light of the Twin Novae battle, 803 years ago and 803 light years away — one of the last battles of the Idiran War, when two suns were destroyed and billions died. It's a time for regret, and reflection on ancient mistakes, and also for remembering more recent mistakes and disasters.

    7/20 Ted Chiang, Exhalation

    I think I've now read everything that Ted Chiang has published, which means I've read his two collections, Stories of Your Life and Others and the recently published Exhalation. Both of them are very good; almost every story in them has won or been nominated for some major award. Anyone with any interest in science fiction or speculative fiction should read them.

    Joyce Carol Oates reviewed Exhalation a couple months ago in The New Yorker and she listed a number of writers she sees as his literary predecessors, including Dick, Tiptree, Borges, Le Guin, and Ishiguro. Sounds about right to me, especially the comparison to Borges. Some of the stories in this collection really are narrative fiction and others are more like philosophical explorations, a mixture of imagination and carefully working out the implications. There are a few pages of author's notes at the end of the book, talking about the origins of each story.

    7/18 Gillian Clark, Late Antiquity: A Very Short Introduction

    The author begins by asking just what late antiquity was, and of course the answer is that the definition is contested, both in geographical and temporal bounds. It was a time of transition, roughly from the 3rd century (the time of Diocletian, say, who divided the Roman Empire into the eastern and western halves) through the 8th (the rise of the Carolingian dynasty and the Abbasid Caliphate; the end of a time when a single political entity controlled the Mediterranean). At some point you can draw a line and say you're now in the middle ages, but that line is necessarily arbitrary.

    One thing the author emphasizes is the dispute among historians who emphasize transition and those who emphasize continuity. Something that's kind of obvious when you think about it is that the Germanic conquests in the western Roman Empire weren't the end of Roman civilization, any more than the Manchu conquests were the end of Chinese civilization. The last Vandal king of north Africa, Gelimer, asked for a lyre when he surrendered to Justinian's army; he used it to compose and perform an ode. The list of the seven classical liberal arts was compiled by a Roman aristocrat named Cassiodorus, a civil servant in the Ostrogothic kingdom of Italy.

    7/13 Eliezer Yudkowsky, Rationality: From AI to Zombies (ed. Rob Bensinger)

    A collection of blog posts from Overcoming Bias, LessWrong, and yudkowsky.net, reorganized and edited by Rob Bensinger (and with a new preface by Yudkowsky). All of this material is available either free on the Web or as a conveniently packaged ebook; I read the ebook version. Either version is the core text of the community that calls themselves Rationalists and that's organized around forums like LessWrong and Slate Star Codex; this community often calls this collection The Sequences.

    This book is partly about Yudkowsky's ideas for how to think (very roughly: quantitative thinking when possible; use of Bayesian reasoning to update beliefs based on evidence; decision theory; choosing meaningful categories; awareness of human cognitive biases; utilitarianism) and partly about the kinds of things that he believes it's important to think about. The latter includes things like artificial intelligence; the importance of building a “friendly AI” that's aligned with something like human values, since an arbitrary superhuman AI whose motivations emerge accidentally is almost certain to destroy the world; transhumanism; futurism; evolutionary psychology; cognitive science; atheism; the Many Worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics; cryonics, and more generally ending death; effective altruism; science fiction.

    I have some misgivings both about the community of self-identified Rationalists and about this book. One surface level criticism is that when you read a ton of daily blog posts one after another, there's a ton of repetition. There are also some blind spots and omissions in this book, including some naivete about politics, and a few too many places where Yudkowsky substitutes sneering for argument. This latter fault is most obvious in what he writes about environmentalism, “modern art” (I don't know what he means by that phrase, and I suspect he doesn't either), and “postmodern” English professors (again it's not clear if he has first-hand knowledge of them or if he's just repeating insults he's heard), and to some extent in his discussion of the philosophy of probability, where I don't think he's genuinely engaging with the arguments from the frequentist camp. You can also see this in his obsession with the Many-Worlds interpretation, where he isn't living up to his own advice that if there's an argument that looks like it might be about semantics you should ask what you expect to observe rather than what words truly mean; the fact I don't think he gets is that your average physicist doesn't pay all that much attention to the Many-Worlds vs Copenhagen controversy, not so much because anyone is saying that Many-Worlds is false and Copenhagen is true, but because even if you agree that in some sense Many-Worlds is true, it doesn't make any difference. (And it's not as if there's any lack of foundational issues in quantum mechanics that do make a difference, like how you can formulate quantum field theory in a way that doesn't contain glaring mathematical inconsistencies.)

    Despite all of that I am glad I read this book, and I recommend it, either packaged or online. Yudkowsky is smart, I learned things from this book, and most of his advice about how to think is true and even useful. Most of the time he goes wrong it's because he isn't paying attention to his own advice: advice like paying more attention to what's settled in a field that's not your own than to what's controversial (an outsider probably can't tell which controversies matter or which group of experts is right), or being careful about whether a disagreement is semantic or substantive, or making sure not to give extra-skeptical scrutiny or looking for fully general objections when you see an argument you're predisposed against. Most of the time his advice is good, and most of his conclusions are either right or at least interesting. This collection has been very influential within a specific community and to some extent even beyond that community, largely deservedly. “Friendly AI” or “AI alignment” has become a real research program. The “effective altruism” movement has done real good, and Yudkowsky's advocacy is one of the things that made it happen. Reading this book and thinking about it really is likely to make one less wrong, and even the mistakes can be instructive. Just read with caution.

    7/10 Graham Greene, Our Man in Havana

    A spy story and a black comedy. The spies are mostly real, and the damage they cause is real, but the world the spies think they're living in isn't. (The time and place of the book is interesting. It was published and presumably set in 1958, which we now know was just before the Cuban Revolution, but there's very little sense of that from the book.)

    7/5 Spanish War (tr. Kurt A. Raaflaub)

    This book tells the story of the last phase of the civil war between the Caesarian and Pompeian factions. Pompey the Great himself died in Alexandria, but his sons Gnaeus Pompeius and Sextus Pompeius fled from Africa to Spain and raised an army. After the Spanish war was over, in April of 45 BCE (by then Rome was using the new calendar that Caesar introduced), Caesar returned to Rome and celebrated a triumph.

    The Spanish War is the last book in the Corpus Caesarianum and, like Alexandrian War and African War, it wasn't written by Caesar. It's also obvious that all three of these books were written by different people. The translator says that most scholars believe Spanish War was written by a relatively low ranking officer, perhaps a centurion or a cavalry squadron commander. The author clearly fought with Caesar's army in Africa and Spain, but he writes about individual battles rather than about strategic plans. The author clearly had some education, but scholars regard this book as poorly written and regard the author's Latin as stylistically bad and often ungrammatical. Some of that comes through in the English translation.

    7/4 Jacqueline Winspear, Maisie Dobbs

    First in a series of detective novels. It takes place in 1929; Maisie Dobbs is a former maid, later a volunteer nurse who served in a casualty clearing station just behind the front lines in France, now a private detective. The mystery in this book is largely about characters (including Maisie herself) coming to grips with the way they were damaged by the War and what they lost.

    7/1 Iain Banks, The Business

    This is one of Banks's books that was published without an “M” but that nevertheless has a somewhat science-fictional sensibility. The titular Business is a large and very old commercial enterprise that dates back to the early days of the Roman Empire, which they owned for 66 days in the 2nd century. Kate Telman, the main character and narrator, is a Business executive. In principle this book is set in our world, so there are a couple pages where Kate explains why this is something you've never heard of. (Basic answer: they're not exactly secret but also not publicity seeking, they have a somewhat amorphous structure and a number of names and corporate identities, and most people who write about business have other things to write about.)

    This is the second time I've read The Business. The first time, I think, was when it came out in 1999. I now have more experience with high level corporate leadership than I did back then. And of course real-world Silicon Valley executives are nothing like Kate, a level-3 Business executive, or like her level-2 or level-1 superiors. But then, that's also a big part of the point. The Business practices radical internal transparency, internal democracy (people vote on who their bosses should be; promotion is by consensus), and some aspects of communal ownership (high executives live in luxury but most of their property is a life interest, not something owned outright and passed to heirs). This is an anarcho-socialist's version of hierarchy and capitalism.

    6/28 Jane Gardam, The Man in the Wooden Hat

    Old Filth is the story of Sir Edward Feathers QC, a.k.a. “Old Filth.” This book retells much of the story except from the point of view of Filth's wife, Betty, a fellow expatriate. It's an interesting authorial choice that the story essentially begins when Filth and Betty get married, only alluding to the dramatic parts of her life before that, like working at Bletchley Park or surviving a Japanese prison camp.

    I think I liked Old Filth better overall, but the two books complement each other well. I especially liked the scene toward the end of the book, Filth's last conversation with Veneering.

    6/23 Arkady Martine, A Memory Called Empire

    This book is a first novel. I picked it up because Ann Leckie blurbed it as a brilliant space opera. It also turns out that the author (real name: Dr. AnnaLinden Weller) works as a Byzantine Empire historian for her day job: even better! Perhaps not coincidentally, the novel is filled with complicated conspiracies and court intrigues (I think I finally came to understand most of them), shadowy threats from the outside, and the ever-present danger of rebellion or civil war. The sequel is scheduled for 2020.

    6/15 Agatha Christie, Death on the Nile

    6/14 Martin Gilbert, The First World War: A Complete History

    "Complete" is impossible but it is quite comprehensive, including a few subjects that aren't often covered. The author also takes care to show the human side of the War. We get the movements of armies and the orders given by people like Haig or Foch or von Kluck, but at least as much time is spent on quotes from diaries, soldiers' letters home, individual moments of heroism or tragedy. Some of them are the stories of famous people (Manfred von Richthofen, Vera Brittain, Albert Einstein, Alvin York, …), but most aren't. "Among the members of the Liverpool Pals killed at Guillemont on July 30 was Lance-Corporal S. Atherton, who for fifteen years had been a player and then groundsman for the Oxton Cricket Club in Birkenhead. Although a married man, he had been among the very first to volunteer. He left a widow and four daughters." You've never heard of S. Atherton before, which is the point.

    There's a ton of poetry in this book: the obvious poems of people like Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon and Isaac Rosenberg, but also scraps of poetry written by long forgotten junior officers. I suppose poets were a minority in the trenches, but they were a large enough minority that in the story of essentially every battle it's possible to quote the verses of someone who died in it.

    6/11 Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman, Good Omens

    I reread it for the same reasons everyone else is reading it, of course.

    6/5 Gene Wolfe, The Fifth Head of Cerberus

    Gene Wolfe's second book, published 1972 (his first book apparently wasn't very good), and the one that got him noticed as a major writer. The Fifth Head of Cerberus is a collection of three novellas, the first called “The Fifth Head of Cerberus,” that end up forming a single story.

    The dust jacket on my edition (first edition, I think) talks about colonialism and cruelty as major themes of this book. True, although in light of Wolfe's later works it was also striking how much it was about identity as a slippery concept, about the unreliability of stories, how much of it was deliberately ambiguous. I didn't fully understand it, of course; you never really understand a Gene Wolfe book the first time you read it.

    6/3 Ken Binmore, Game Theory: A Very Short Introduction

    An economist's version of game theory, so it's light on things like the Brouwer fixed-point theorem and heavy on things like the doctrine of revealed preference. Alas, I can't really recommend it even as an introduction to how economists look at this subject. The main problem is that it isn't really a very short introduction; it's a longer introduction with some of the words left out. Too much is missing or unexplained or glossed over.

    5/31 William Shakespeare, All's Well That Ends Well

    The bed trick! But Helen should really have asked for a better prize than Bertram.

    5/28 James S. A. Corey, Tiamat's Wrath

    All caught up! This is the most recent Expanse book. I think the plan is that there will be one more book in the series. Lots of things from earlier books are beginning to come together.

    5/26 S. E. Hinton, The Outsiders

    One of the classics of American YA fiction, apparently, but I'd never heard of it until Al read it for middle school. I thought at first maybe that's because it came out after I was the target audience, but no, it's been around since roughly forever. Don't know why I'd never come across it before; it's worth reading.

    5/26 Charlie Jane Anders, The City in the Middle of the Night

    It's set on the tidally locked world January, where both of the major human cities are precariously built in the tiny habitable strip between the deadly day and night sides, and part of the book is just about exploring that setting: what does it do to one's sense of time, and to the societal structures built around time, when there is no day/night cycle? Part of it is also about the different varieties of friendship and loyalty, and part of it is about different forms of ethnicity and historical memory, and part of it is a first contact novel.

    Also it's a novel about climate change. We gradually learn that the main racial/ethnic distinction people see in this world (even the ones who think they don't see race) is which of the seven great city-states someone's ancestors came from when the Mothership reached January centuries ago — Nagpur, Zagreb, New Shanghai, Ulaanbaatar, Khartoum, Calgary, Merida — and we learn as part of the backstory that the enclosed city-states were built because the surface of Earth was ruined. Even more gradually we learn that January's hostile climate is becoming more hostile, that travel on the open road isn't what it was, that fishing and mining are running out, that both of the human cities, in their own way, are trying to deny change and are managing a slow decline, and that this is going to be the defining crisis of the age for both the humans and the aliens.

    Very different from Charlie Jane's previous book, and very good.

    5/25 Miloš Vasić, Fundamental Kotlin (2nd edition)

    Too many sloppy mistakes for me to really recommend it, but it's a short book and it gave me a flavor of what the Kotlin programming language is like, which I guess is what I was looking for.

    5/20 Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

    I think I only read this book once before, in high school. That was a while ago! I imagine I'm like most people in finding Miss Havisham the most memorable character by far.

    The really painful part of the book is the middle section when Pip has become an insufferable snob and when he's doing the wrong thing again and again, behaving badly and ungratefully toward people who deserve better from him, cultivating stupid and joyless extravagances, being aware that what he's doing is wrong and that it's making him desperately unhappy but doing it anyway.

    5/18 Kurtis J. Wiebe (story), Roc Upchurch and Stjepan Sejic (art), Rat Queens: Volume Two: The Far-Reaching Tentacles of N'Rygoth

    5/12 James S. A. Corey, Persepolis Rising

    I was confused when I read the first few pages of this book. Did I miss something? Did I accidentally skip a book? No, this book really does take place 25 or 30 years after the end of the last Expanse book. Most of the major characters from the previous books are still alive.

    5/9 William Shakespeare, Macbeth

  • Be bloody, bold, and resolute; laugh to scorn
  • The power of man, for none of woman born
  • Shall harm Macbeth.
  • 5/7 Dorothy Sayers, Five Red Herrings

    Still probably my least favorite Sayers book, but it's better than I had remembered from the one previous time I'd read it. The dreary railroad timetables and bicycle logistics were a smaller part of the book than I had remembered, and the small-town artists' social circle more interesting.

    5/5 African War (tr. Kurt A. Raaflaub)

    Again it's included in The Landmark Julius Caesar because it has traditionally been included along with Caesar's works, and again it's not written by Caesar. The authorship is unknown, but even in English translation it's obvious from the style alone that it wasn't written by either Caesar or Hirtius. The translator's introduction suggests that it may have been written by a senior officer who served with Caesar.

    This book is the story of one of the later phases of the civil war. Caesar's Civil War tells the story of Pompey's defeat and death, but the Pompeian faction was not completely defeated. The Pompeians controlled the province of Africa; they still had prominent leaders, including Metellus Scipio, Cato the Younger, Pompey's son Gnaeus Pompeius, and an alliance with king Juba of Numidia. African War begins with Caesar's arrival in Africa and ends with his victory: the death of Juba and the capture of his son, and the death or capture of most of Caesar's Roman opponents.

    5/2 William Shakespeare, As You Like It

    A very quotable play! "All the world's a stage", and "It was a lover and his lass", and "men have died from time to time, and worms have eaten them, but not for love." Also notable for the fact that in Shakespeare's day it would have featured a boy (the actor) playing a woman (Rosalind) playing a boy (Ganymede) role-playing a woman (Rosalind again).

    4/28 Bartłomiej Filipek, C++17 In Detail

    Just what it sounds like: a guide to the new features added in C++17, based on the author's blog, mostly assuming familiarity with C++11 and C++14.

    4/28 Mary Robinette Kowal, The Fated Sky

    Sequel to The Calculating Stars. It skips forward a few years to 1961 where Elma York, the main character of both books, is piloting unglamorous short hops between Artemis Base and remote sites. Well, unglamorous except that Artemis Base is the small lunar colony. And since the first work in this series (in publication order as opposed to internal chronology) is the novelette The Lady Astronaut of Mars, it should be unsurprising that most of the book takes place on the First Mars Expedition.

    The book is about racism as much as it's about space exploration and colonization. Dr. York is a well meaning and sometimes oblivious white woman who keeps rediscovering that that isn't enough, and there are plenty of other characters who are less well meaning.

    4/21 Steven S. Skiena, The Algorithm Design Manual (second edition)

    A tutorial and a reference manual. The first part covers things like the analysis of algorithms, the principle of NP-completeness, important algorithmic techniques like sorting, dynamic programming, backtracking, and graph traversal, and how to think about algorithm design. The second half, intended more as a reference, is a catalog. Each entry is some algorithmic problem or family of problems, and discusses what to do if you're faced with that problem: what are the important variants, what are the known algorithms or approximations or heuristics for each, what are some further references, what implementations already exist.

    4/20 Mary Robinette Kowal, The Calculating Stars

    One of this year's Hugo nominees for best novel, and an alternate history of the space program. In 1952 a giant meteor strike in Chesapeake Bay destroys Washington and devastates the rest of the eastern seaboard, killing millions including most of the main character's family — and then the main character, a physicist and computer (a job title then, not a piece of machinery) and pilot (yes, the US military had female military pilots in WWII, WASPs), realizes that that's not the bad news and that we need to get off the planet. Some people choose to ignore the climate predictions, but enough take the emergency seriously that there's an accelerated space program.

    The front cover has “A Lady Astronaut Novel” on it, and indeed most of the book is about the main character's struggles to be taken seriously as a scientist and pilot (the 1950s of this alternate timeline are no less sexist than in our world) and to become an astronaut.

    4/14 Kurtis J. Wiebe and Roc Upchurch, Rat Queens: Volume One: Sass and Sorcery

    4/11 James S. A. Corey, Babylon's Ashes

    Book 6 of The Expanse. I'm badly behind on this series! There are two more books for me to read now.

    My favorite scene in this book was the one with Avasarala working out at the gym. Cursing is involved.

    4/6 Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey

    “Yes, novels; for I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel-writers, of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding—joining with their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets on such works, and scarcely ever permitting them to be read by their own heroine, who, if she accidentally take up a novel, is sure to turn over its insipid pages with disgust. Alas! If the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard? I cannot approve of it.”

    3/29 Roger Crowley, City of Fortune: How Venice Ruled the Seas

    The rise and fall of Venice's maritime empire, or Stato da Mar, from 1000 to 1503.

    3/29 Elizabeth Inchbald, Lovers' Vows

    An adaptation, not a direct translation, of August von Kotzebue's Das Kind der Liebe, and a big hit on the London stage in 1798. I read it for the same reasons as everyone else nowadays: it's the improper play from the amateur theatricals in Mansfield Park. I imagine it would be completely forgotten if not for Austen.

    3/28 Jane Austen, Mansfield Park

    I'd forgotten how this novel ended. That is, I remember who the main character marries and who she doesn't, but I'd forgotten how that became possible. An awful lot of things happen in the last few pages!

    3/24 Alexandrian War (tr. Kurt A. Raaflaub)

    Alexandrian War is included in The Landmark Julius Caesar because it has always been considered part of the Corpus Caesarianum, but it was not written by Caesar. Its authorship is unknown, and was unknown even in ancient times. Suetonius listed several theories. One theory, which some modern scholars agree with, is that it may have been written by Hirtius, possibly working from Caesar's notes.

    Whoever wrote Alexandrian War, it's a continuation of the story that ended so abruptly in Caesar's Civil War. It begins with Caesar in Alexandria, fighting against the forces of king Ptolemy XIII, defeating Ptolemy's army and installing Cleopatra VII as sole ruler of Egypt. (Nominally with her younger brother, Ptolemy XIV, as co-ruler.)

    Oddly, the name “Cleopatra” appears only once, in a brief passage. There's no mention of Caesar's personal relationship with her, the famous Nile cruise or their son. Also oddly: despite the name of the book, more than half of it is about other things. There's a long section on what was going on in Spain while Caesar was in the east, and a long section on Caesar's doings in the east after leaving Alexandria: winning a war against king Pharnaces of Pontus (that's where we get “veni, vidi, vici,” although that quote doesn't come from this book), and otherwise settling affairs around Cilicia and Capadocia and Galatia. The book ends with Caesar returning to Rome, presumably with the intention of serving out his term as consul and dictator.

    3/21 Donna Leon, Dressed for Death

    3/17 Donna Leon, Death in a Strange Country

    When Brunetti turned to leave, Vianello asked, ‘What about the deal I make with him? Will we keep our part of it?’
    At this, Brunetti turned back and gave Vianello a long look. ‘Of course. If criminals can't believe in an illegal deal with the police, what can they believe in?’

    3/14 Gaius Julius Caesar, Civil War (tr. Kurt A. Raaflaub)

    Caesar's Civil War seems not to have been published in his lifetime, which is odd. It's the story of the civil war between Caesar and Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (Pompey), beginning immediately after Caesar returned from Gaul, and a major theme of the book is Caesar's justification of his actions, making it clear that the war was the fault of his enemies rather than his own. As he says early on (writing about himself in the third person, as he also does in Gallic War), “it was not because of any desire to cause harm that he had left his province but only to defend himself against the outrages his enemies had inflicted on him; to restore the full dignitas of the tribunes of the plebs, who had been expelled from the state because of their efforts on his behalf; and to win back for himself and for the Roman people the liberty they had lost through the oppression of a few men.” Surely he must have written this book in part as propaganda, to bolster his side in the war, so why wasn't it published while the war was still going on?

    Ancient and modern scholars seem to think of Civil War as unfinished and only partially edited, and that's certainly what it seems like. The last book is the most exciting part. Caesar's outnumbered army is defeated by Pompey at Dyrrachium but retreats to fight the Battle of Pharsalus in northeastern Greece, in which Pompey's army is decisively defeated and Pompey only barely escapes with a few men; Pompey flees to Asia, then Syria, then Cyprus, then Egypt, hoping to find a place that will take him in while he raises a new army; Caesar pursues Pompey to Alexandria, only to find that he needn't have bothered. The Egyptians decided that a defeated Pompey was a liability rather than a valuable ally, and killed him. Caesar, instead of returning to Rome, gets involved in a civil war between the two co-rulers of Egypt, Ptolemy XIII and Cleopatra VII — and there the book ends, right in the middle of the story: before the war is resolved, before the birth of Caesar and Cleopatra's son, before Caesar returns to Rome. Surely Caesar intended to write more.

    Fun fact: the word “Rubicon” does not appear in this book.

    3/11 F. C. Yee, The Epic Crush of Genie Lo

    YA contemporary fantasy, inspired by Chinese folklore and by the Chinese classical novel Journey to the West, and with a Chinese-American main character, a Silicon Valley high school student. (But a Silicon Valley with fictionalized place names, for some reason. The main character lives in Santa Firenze, the same town as the Great United amusement park; she mentions the wealthy suburbs Anderton and Edison Park; the good state school across the Bay is unnamed.)

    3/5 Dorothy Sayers, Unnatural Death

    The murder method in this book doesn't work (L. E. Böttiger, “The murderer's vade mecum,” British Medical Journal 285(6357):1819, 1982), but there are other things to like about it.

    3/2 Becky Chambers, Record of a Spaceborn Few

    The latest book by one of the FOGcon guests of honor. It's set in the same universe as her previous two books, but it's not a continuation of either book and there are no characters in common. It's mostly about immigration, assimilation, and cultural identity. As readers of the previous two books might guess from the title, and as is confirmed within a few pages, most of this book is set on the Exodus Fleet, the generation ships that left a ruined Earth centuries ago. By the time of this story more than half of humans live somewhere other than the Fleet, but it's still the largest single collection of humans in the Galactic Commons and it's still what most people, including many humans, think of as the source of human culture.

    2/27 Gaius Julius Caesar, Gallic War (tr. Kurt A. Raaflaub)

    Or strictly speaking I should say that this work was written by Gaius Julius Caesar and Aulus Hirtius. Caesar wrote seven books of the Gallic War, ending with the victory over Vercingetorix, and Hirtius, Caesar's friend and aide, added an eighth book to continue the story through the end of Caesar's governorship of Gaul and up to the events at the beginning of Caesar's Civil War. Caesar certainly intended Gallic War for publication, but it's unknown whether he published each of the seven books as he wrote them, one a year, or whether he published the entire work all at once.

    If I'd been properly educated I would have read Commentarii de Bello Gallico years ago. I don't know Latin, alas, so I read it in translation. I read it in The Landmark Julius Caesar, a wonderful edition that's part of the Landmark Ancient Histories series. In addition to Caesar's complete surviving works (including Alexandrian War, African War, and Spanish War, which weren't written by Caesar but are traditionally included with his works), The Landmark Julius Caesar includes a very detailed translator's preface, an introduction to Caesar's life and works, extensive explanatory notes, many maps and figures, and a glossary and who's-who. Then there's another 300 pages of scholarly articles, left out of the printed book because of page count limitations but available as Web Essays. I haven't started on the Web Essays yet, but they look good: “The Gallic War as a Work of Literature” and “The Gallic War as a Work of Propaganda” (even on a cursory reading it's obviously both), “The Economics of War,” “Caesar on Britain,” and much more.

    2/17 Agatha Christie, The Clocks

    One of the fun things about this book is Christie (via Poirot) telling us about some of her favorite mystery writers.

    2/14 Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Searching For The Fleet

    I'm now less than a year behind on my Asimov's! I read Rusch's novella “Dix” in the March/April 2018 issue and it reminded me to read this novel, which includes “Dix” as the first part.

    2/2 Robert Van Gulik, The Chinese Maze Murders

    This is a Judge Dee novel by Robert Van Gulik, not a translation of a Chinese text. (Although Van Gulik says that the structure and most of the plot elements are taken from old Chinese stories.)

    Odd fact: according to the foreword this novel was written in English (even though the author's native language was Dutch), but the Japanese and Chinese translations were published earlier than the original English text.

    1/27 Jane Gardam, Old Filth

    Jane Gardam is a fairly well known contemporary British novelist, but this is the first of her books I've read. I'll have to read more, including the other two books in this trilogy.

    Old Filth, the novel, is mostly about “Old Filth” the character, a.k.a. Sir Edward Feathers, an elderly retired barrister and judge, a former “Raj orphan” who spent most of his life abroad and whose nickname comes from that old joke (which his colleagues think maybe he originated), Failed In London Try Hong Kong, but who left Hong Kong for Dorset before the 1997 handover. The book is largely his reflections on his life, returning to events of his childhood that stuck with him many decades later.

    1/27 Dorothy Sayers, Clouds of Witness

    I like the blind alleys in this book, all of the painstaking work tracking down something that might matter, only to find out that it doesn't.

    1/21 Adam Rogers, Proof: The Science of Booze

    This book is just what the title says: a popular science book about the science of alcoholic drinks and the history of how we've learned that science, including fermentation, distillation, aging, taste and other forms of sensory perception, and how alcohol affects the human body. That last is the part I knew the least about, and it turns out that I'm not the only one who's ignorant. We don't have a clear idea what happens in the brain when we get drunk (we know much more about many other psychoactive drugs), and we know even less about what causes hangovers. One of the interesting things I learned about in that last section was the work of the psychologist Alan Marlatt, who figured out how to mix a drink that tasted the same whether or not it had alcohol in it, and who divided up his subjects into four groups, rather than the traditional two experimental/control, depending on whether they were given ethanol and whether they were told they'd been given ethanol; the physiological responses of all four groups differed from each other.

    There were no cocktail recipes in this book (maybe a few tips on what to notice when you drink single malt Scotch), but it's fun and informative if you're interested in science or booze or both.

    1/19 Rust by Example

    1/19 Charles Stross, The Labyrinth Index

    In which the ever-cheerful Charlie Stross reminds us that it's possible to imagine a fictional world in which British and American politics are even worse than our current reality. Our heroes(?) in the Laundry, the British occult spy agency, have made a deal to ensure the victory of the lesser evil; Britain is now ruled by the Black Pharoah, N'yar Lat-Hotep, one of the nightmarish elder gods. (As the main character says, “The Denizen of Number 10 is the avatar—the humanoid sock-puppet—of an ancient and undying intelligence who regards mere humanity much as we might regard a hive of bees. Our lives are of no individual concern to Him, but He likes honey. As long as we continue to give Him what He wants—honey—He is content to keep us around, and even to tend to us to the extent that it does not inconvenience Him. But the moment anyone thinks to sting the keeper's hand, it will be out with the fly-swatter.” Could be worse.)

    Meanwhile on the other side of the Atlantic, there's no such happy arrangement. The President hasn't been seen in a couple months and someone has put the country under a geas of amnesia that blocks anyone from remembering that there has ever been such a thing as a Presidency, and the Laundry's American counterpart, the Operational Phenomenology Agency (unaffectionately nicknamed the Nazgûl), seems to have been taken over by the entities it was created to defend against and is apparently now worshiping and working to reawaken Cthulhu. The main character is directed to investigate and intervene, and, as one would expect in a spy novel, she isn't told everything about what her mission really is.

    1/16 James Hilton, Random Harvest

    I picked up this book because it was a book I'd never heard of by the author of a well known book, Lost Horizon. I'd never thought about it, but of course Hilton wrote lots of other books.

    Was this book inspired in part by The Return of the Soldier, perhaps, or was loss of memory due to shell shock a common conceit by the time it was published? The book begins in 1937, looking back toward the last war and forward toward the next, and we learn the main character's back story: a young lieutenant from a privileged background in Arras in 1917, knocked unconscious by a shell exploding a few yards away, and that's the last thing he remembers until he wakes up on a Liverpool park bench in 1920. He returns to his family and eventually, not entirely voluntarily, becomes a captain of industry and a successful politician, but something is missing. Then later we get the other side of the story: the soldier who can't remember anything before the explosion, not even his name, and who walks out of the asylum in 1918 where he's being treated for shell shock. Eventually the two stories come together, just as Hitler invades Poland.

    1/13 Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee (tr. Robert Van Gulik)

    Di Renjie (狄仁傑) was a real person, a district magistrate in the first half of his career and later a high imperial official. As a magistrate he would have been responsible for investigating and punishing crimes, but the details of his criminal cases haven't been preserved. He's also a semi-fictional character, one of the famous ancient judges who featured in Chinese detective novels centuries later. Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee is a translation of one of those novels, the anonymously published Di Gong An (狄公案). From today it's distanced several times over: a 1949 translation of an 18th century detective story about a 7th century judge.

    Van Gulik later wrote a series of his own detective novels featuring Judge Dee, but this book attempted to be a faithful translation, not an original story — mostly faithful, anyway. There's a translator's postscript where he explained some of his decisions, like which edition of the text he used, and how he handled the standard chapter headings and closings, and how he translated a Chinese pun into an English pun with a similar flavor, and why he chose to translate only the first half of the original text, believing the second half to be a later and inauthentic addition.

    1/11 J. R. R. Tolkien, The Return of the King

    “Then Treebeard said farewell to each of them in turn, and he bowed three times slowly and with great reverence to Celeborn and Galadriel. ‘It is long, long since we met by stock or by stone, A vanimar, vanimálion nostari!’ he said. ‘It is sad that we should meet only thus at the ending. For the world is changing: I feel it in the water, I feel it in the earth, and I smell it in the air. I do not think we shall meet again.’

    And Celeborn said: ‘I do not know, Eldest.’ But Galadriel said: ‘Not in Middle-earth, nor until the lands that lie under the wave are lifted up again. Then in the willow-meads of Tasarinan we may meet in the Spring. Farewell!’”

    1/6 J. R. R. Tolkien, The Two Towers

    “It was Sam's first view of a battle of Men against Men, and he did not like it much. He was glad that he could not see the dead face. He wondered what the man's name was and where he came from; and if he was really evil of heart, or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from his home; and if he would not really rather have stayed there in peace.”

    1/3 J. R. R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

    “I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.

    “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

    Matt Austern