Book Thread

Discussion in 'Media Central' started by RickDeckard, Dec 23, 2012.

  1. NAHTMMM

    NAHTMMM Perpetually sondering

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    Lake Wobegon Days - Garrison Keillor

    One day a few years ago, KJ noticed several Keillor books on the library discard shelf and picked them up, not being aware why they were there. I finally got around to reading one.

    This is about Keillor's fictional Minnesota town full of old-fashioned European immigrants. It's part pseudo- (semi-?) autobiography, part narrative history, part tales about the current inhabitants. There's a lot of childhood hijinks, church culture, drinking, farming, driving, and of course a hot dish and lutefisk. A visionary founds a university in the middle of nowhere and gets a bear for his troubles. An underdog grows a massive, prize-winning tomato. Youth struggle against the ascetic, humble, God- and world-fearing attitudes of their elders. It feels true to life, laced all through with irony and humor dry to the point of desiccation. A slow read but quite enjoyable.
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  2. RickDeckard

    RickDeckard Socialist

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    The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin

    This is a fairly recent translation of a Chinese sci-fi novel that has attracted lots of praise, including from the Nebula and Mercury awards.
    Set in China against the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, it concerns attempts to make first contact with extraterrestrial species, as well as a bizarre computer game that gives the novel its name.
    It's only the first in a series, but it throws around a dizzying variety of concepts, some more realistic than others. In its inventiveness it seems to recall Arthur C. Clarke.
    It moves fast and one could question some of the characterisation. One is always aware that one is reading a translation - some of the writing lacks fluidity. And I did have some trouble keeping track of the Chinese character names, but that's my own fault.
    Altogether though it's rare to come across something that feels this fresh. I'll certainly be following up with the sequels.
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  3. Demiurge

    Demiurge Goodbye and Hello, as always.

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    Been listening to the Belgariad by David Eddings, a favorite from my childhood that I haven't revisited in 30 years. Got it to share with my son on family trips, but with the pandemic we haven't really gone anywhere in several years, so finishing it up by myself. The true beauty of this is the narrator Cameron Beierle, the man of a thousand dialects. In an epic sprawling fantasy with well over 100 major characters, he manages to give each of them a distinct voice. It's almost the quality of an audioplay. Definitely the best quality audiobook I've ever listened to.

    The books themselves are showing their age a bit, especially as the author created his story with three tropes, the coming of age story, the lost prince, and the difference of the races, which was a very common theme in both the medieval iconography that inspired fantasy and the early fantasy writers. In this case Eddings doesn't break form - if you are told a Sendar is solid and dependable, and you see a Sendar, they are going to be solid and dependable. And there's definitely some sexism in the books, but he balances that by having one of the greatest heroines in fantasy, the immortal sorceress Polgara, Duchess of Erat. The story is vast, the world intriguing, the myths solid, and he writes several archetypical characters that are among the best examples of their kind in the field. In particular Belgarath the Sorceror, who is pretty much Gandalf if he spent his early years as a petty thief and vagabond. And Prince Kheldar of Drasnia, one of the best examples of the rogue, a cheerfully corrupt spy, merchant and thief. A few fun tuns of character at the end and it's quite an enjoyable time, even now.

    I tried another one before this, a classic fantasy the Black Company. It's a beloved series, but I just couldn't get into it. The prose just isn't up to standard, it's a boring read.

    And I listened to a scifi thriller that I saw many women gushing about on Goodreads and Reddit, the Quantum Rose by Catherine Asaro. Again, I stopped before completion. It's a romance novel, and quite frankly is just soft porn in several places. It's basically 50 Shades of Grey set in space - though it predated that. When she started giving a blow by blow account of their first time having oral sex, I just laughed and turned it off. Granted, I've got no problem with porn, but there's better formats for it if that's what you want at the moment. :D
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  4. NAHTMMM

    NAHTMMM Perpetually sondering

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    Mr. Lincoln's War - Bruce Catton

    There are a couple of unfamiliar titles in the front that I will have to keep an eye out for, but after this I may have only Glory Road to look forward to reading for the first time. I found this volume in hardback with dust cover for a paltry $1.99 in a used bookstore over Christmas break and have been savoring it. [​IMG]

    This is the first book in Catton's Army of the Potomac trilogy and possibly the first major book he wrote about the Civil War. In a foreword he says that he wrote the book to understand the old veterans he saw around him growing up, and what they had been through. As his first endeavor, it doesn't attain the highest of prose that he achieves in later books. There also seem to be more contractions than usual in this one. But the author's interest in all levels, from the individual soldier up to national politics and occasionally overseas, is there, and the flow from one topic to the next exists even if it isn't as artistic as it later will be. There are a lot of individual anecdotes as usual, and some higher-level analysis of strategy and politics as well, although less of the latter than in some later books.

    Also being the first book, Catton talks more about the weaponry and the rations issued to soldiers. Apparently they preferred the more commonly issued salt pork over salt beef (which was often rancid or far too salty to eat) or bacon (which was fine in camp but greased up your pack on the march). He also sketches portraits of many officers whose familiarity is taken for granted in later books. And, this volume covering essentially the time from McClellan getting his first command to being relieved after Antietam, a good deal of time is spent on McClellan, on how he saw himself, why he was often so slow to act, and his misunderstandings and hostility with Washington that eventually made him a politically unfit general-in-chief. Catton remarks in the endnotes that most contemporary historians saw the relieving of McClellan as a mistake. It was certainly a mistake to replace him with Burnside, but by the time of my high school Civil War segment, the attitude had shifted enough that I understood McClellan to be one in a string of generals who just weren't up to the task of beating the South. At any rate, McClellan was certainly an intelligent and tragic figure.
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  5. RickDeckard

    RickDeckard Socialist

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    The Dark Forest by Liu Cixin

    A direct sequel to The Three-Body Problem, which I enjoyed immensely, this is really more of the same, albeit with added sci-fi as timelines advance from our present into the future.
    The same issues are present - characters are not particularly believable or likeable, and at times the translation from Chinese is a little 'off'. But it's hard to care when the plot is this imaginative. I'm not usually a compulsive reader and I've been busy lately but I devoured the second half of this book very quickly.
    It's quite difficult to describe without getting into spoilers for its predecessor, but those familiar with theories around extraterrestrial contact may recognise the title - taken from one of many proposed solutions to the Fermi Paradox, which suggests that interstellar contact is a very dangerous affair and that we'd be best not making our presence known.
    There's another book in the trilogy which I'll get to, but for me this already stands alongside a small number of other works on this topic - Contact, His Masters Voice, The Mote in God's Eye - discussing the prospects in a mature yet fascinating way.
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  6. NAHTMMM

    NAHTMMM Perpetually sondering

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    . . . Who Needs Enemies? - Alan Dean Foster

    A short story collection I picked up off the library discard shelf. There's a brief intro where ADF talks about how satisfying writing short SF stories is, and then each story gets its own brief introduction. The star of the show is theoretically a tale of ADF's Flinx and Pip, a boy and his dragon, and their entanglement in a mine on a lawless world. And it's good. But the best stories for me are "Gift of a Useless Man", about a man dying on an asteroid, "Swamp Planet Christmas", where a colony is threatened by local swamp things and computerized bureaucracy, and "What Do The Simple Folk Do? . . ." about a society given over to fulfilling their violent lusts via television. The dragon in the Wild West is a fun one too.
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  7. NAHTMMM

    NAHTMMM Perpetually sondering

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    The New Testament Background: Selected Documents (revised) - C.K. Barrett

    I probably picked this up at a book sale? Years back? This is a collection of excerpts from various sources, with commentary, that would have influenced Christians and the world they lived in in the first couple of centuries Anno Domini.

    There's a lot of variety in the early going. Octavian bragging about his accomplishments. Egyptian myths and private letters about everyday matters. Greek Stoics counselling against slavery to one's animal desires. Interesting but a little slow-going at first, but some obviously relevant information beyond just the Greek philosophies that early Christians might either fight against or co-opt into their thinking processes. Greek philosophers, for example, would stand on street corners and proclaim their ideas to passersby. So Paul's speech in Athens was nothing unusual for the place and time. Mystery religions get a look-in, and we find out some nerd named his son Proficientius.

    Then the book moves on to the Jews' part of the world and things get more interesting for my purposes. Jewish history and culture are described, some through Josephus or Philo or the Apocrypha, some through Gentile sources. Herod rebuilds the Temple, builds a lot of Roman stuff all over his realm that the locals are sure to love, and kills a lot of family members who might have looked at him funny. For him, murdering a cityful of Jewish babies was Tuesday. Tacitus reports a very confused idea of the Law, and we find out that Gentiles thought the Jews were lazy and must have invented the Sabbath as an excuse to goof off. But it's clear that there were a lot of Jews who took their Law very seriously, to the point of being willing to die for it on various occasions.

    Then it gets to Rabbinic literature and it gets really interesting for our purposes. Amid the debates on endless edge cases as to what is or is not lawful, you can spot a lot of thoughts that Jesus drew upon or built off of. And things that he, and later Paul, would push back against. One notable point is the rabbinical idea of building a "fence" around the Law, i.e. making it stricter than it needed to be in order to keep people at a safe distance from committing sin. They understood their oral traditions to have equal weight with the written Torah. Jesus pushed back against that, telling the leaders they made the Law too heavy for the people to bear. They also held the Law up as bringing life. Paul (I believe) would point out in an Epistle that the Law brings sin and therefore death. But overall, there was a lot of learned and philosophical debate by smart people who were truly committed to obeying God.

    The Sabbath was a special delight for them that they took very seriously, and there were very specific lists of what could or could not be done on a Sabbath. You could only tie or untie a knot if you could do so with one hand, for example. So you can imagine they were genuinely horrified at some carpenter's son from a hick town just wandering around doing whatever he pleased on the Sabbath. It was not just a case of "they were jealous of Jesus and scared what the Romans would do", Jesus was really flaunting beliefs that were deeply rooted in their minds as being inviolable.

    There are descriptions of some of the religious festivities as they were celebrated at the time. There's a note that Jews couldn't eat lamb at Passover after the Temple was destroyed, presumably the leaders insisted the lamb had to be blessed at the one and only temple or something. (Obviously we Christians make many Significant Noises at that.) Also I have never read "seasoned with lettuce" before and hope never to do so again. But it's all very interesting and comes in handy for John 7-8. Part of the festivities of the Feast of Tabernacles/Booths involved a golden flagon full of water, and another part involved a big candle glow. So Jesus was probably playing off of / upstaging these spectacles when he called for those who were thirsty to come to him and drink, and when he called himself the light of the world.

    Some of the people who were Very Serious about following the Law formed their own little club and called themselves Associates and set up rules about things they could not do with the commoners around them: couldn't sell them food or pay them visits, for example. Obviously Jesus ignored those ideas too.

    The Dead Sea Scrolls are in this for the purpose of describing the Qumran community. They were very strict and severe about following the Law, notably forbidding pulling animals out of pits on the Sabbath. But they had some nice hymns. They also held property in common like the Essenes or the early church.

    After that the focus turns to Philo, who was a Jew who wrote philosophy and history and exegesis and meant well when he tried to combine Jewish and Greek ideas, and then Josephus, a priest turned military commander turned historian and apologetic. Then the Septuagint and some Targum. At this point the book made me look up paraenesis, but it also made me look up zeugma so it all balanced out. Then at the end is Jewish apocalypticism and mysticism, wherein one can see common or conflicting ideas with Christian thought about the end times or the Messiah, most strikingly the idea of the Moon turning to blood.

    There were a few bits of apocrypha I hadn't read yet as well. Notably the Gospel of Thomas, which had one interesting thought before it swerved into hard misogyny at the end.

    So this took a long while to get through, with a lot of subjects and a lot of short or long excerpts, but I learned a lot of things and I'll pass it on to Mom when I visit next.
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  8. RickDeckard

    RickDeckard Socialist

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    The Good Drinker by Adrian Chiles

    Adrian Chiles is a sports and television presenter in the UK, a likeable sort of bloke. I first heard about his story a few years back on a TV documentary about heavy drinkers. Pitched somewhere between a memoir and a self-help book, this book charts his relationship with alcohol and how he's tried to find a better relationship with it by drinking less. The twist is that whereas society tends to only have one option for problem drinkers - to stop completely - Chiles suggests that he and others like him would benefit to a greater extend if they were encouraged to cut their consumption.
    It's a fairly enjoyable, easy read with a lot of insight. I was particularly struck by the section that explains the tricks alcohol plays on your brain to get you to like it - instantly recognisable and also undeniable. I'm a very moderate drinker - I do enjoy the stuff but don't have the constitution required to go too hard on it. So I'm fascinated by someone who says that they can put away 100 units per week and still function properly, for years on end.
    Chiles still drinks what I would consider "too much" - probably three or four times a week. But he seems to be enjoying it (and by extension his life) more so more power to him.
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  9. RickDeckard

    RickDeckard Socialist

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    The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity by David Graeber & David Wengrow

    I was not that impressed with Graeber's Bullshit Jobs when I read it a while back, but he has a good reputation and this came recommended so I gave it a go. It's about human anthropology and an attempt to overturn many of the doctrines that have come to be accepted in this area. There's a lot here and it can be a challenge. Many of the peoples and societies referred to can seem obscure. Certainly some general knowledge about the discipline is useful.

    The authors take issue with all of the conventional narratives of human development - from Hobbes and Rousseau to Marx and onwards to our more contemporary thinkers and writers (Fukuyama, Diamond, Pinker, Harari). They attempt to show that these are very often based on scant evidence, and are attempts to project modern ideas backwards through time in a teleological fashion. (That is, they treat past societies as less than fully formed things but as mere precursors to what followed.) Perhaps the most pervasive of these is the staged evolution of bands to tribes to chiefdoms to states that - while in fairness no longer held to by specialists - gets taken as a given by non-specialists.
    The whole discourse has its origins in the age of exploration and specifically in the collision between the new and old worlds. The foremost question of the time upon encountering 'primitive' societies was around in the origins of inequality, and the prevailing answer has been that complex social structures necessitate this. The writers take this question as wrongly founded.
    Instead it is proposed that for the thousands of years prior to the birth of recorded history, human beings were self-conscious political agents just as much as they are now. They lived in an enormous variety of different types of societies, of varying scale, with varying levels of authoritarianism, bureaucracy and inequality and often switched between different types of social organisation at different times of the year. Purported "revolutions" in agriculture, in urbanisation and so forth were halting, gradual, partial and took thousands of years to attain a form anything like what we would recognise. The attempt to shoehorn this level of complexity into a single mode that represents the natural or original state of human-kind is a colossal nonsense, as is the idea of a sole development path along various "stages".
    The caricatures that we have of such societies are based on the marginal existences eked out by those that have been left after our own civilisation has swallowed everything else up - completely non-representative. And it is suggested that if there is a major distinction with developed societies, it is that we have lost our freedoms (or had them seriously eroded) - freedom of movement and of disobedience in particular. In fact, a large part of the cause of the Enlightenment may have been the absorption of ideas about human freedom that originated with Native Americans - pre-enlightenment Europe being a bit of an authoritarian nightmare.

    It is fascinating but far from perfect. Overturning centuries of dogma is no small task and beyond the reach of just one book. Quite often arguments are couched in maybe's and perhaps's - necessary given the state of the evidence but it somewhat weakens the central arguments. Then there's the fact that - despite protestations to the contrary - the authors could be accused of setting up the 'noble savage' archetype in a different form. Still, this is definitely a necessary debate and this work is a worthwhile beginning to the conversation rather than a last word. All the more misfortune that Graeber didn't live long after publishing it.
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  10. MikeH92467

    MikeH92467 RadioNinja

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    I really enjoyed this one. What strikes me as interesting about the reaction to is, is the characterization of it as a “radical” approach to how civilizations developed. I really don’t see it as radical. Instead, I see it as simply taking a fresh look at everything and instead of trying to make pieces in a straight line development, they’re just saying that “civilizations” developed in fits, starts and retreats. That makes sense if you look at how the collapse of the Late Bronze Age ushered in a “Dark Age” that took centuries to be replaced by a new spate of civilizations who gradually filled in the vacuum. Something similar happened when Rome abandoned Britannia. I think their view from 30,000 is a great way to look at the whole issue. I’m also not convinced about everything they put on the table, but it’s worth thinking about and fun to ponder the idea that the real genius behind The Enlightenment was a North American savage.
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  11. NAHTMMM

    NAHTMMM Perpetually sondering

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    Welcome To The Monkey House - Kurt Vonnegut

    A large collection of short stories. Some are sci-fi, a lot are not. There are a couple of supercomputers and a number of stories set in the Cape Cod area, including "Where I Live", the first story, which has enough Lake Wobegon vibes that I'm not sure how autobiographical it might be.

    I like to pick out a few especially memorable or well-written entries when I read these collections, but it's a pretty even field here. Whether the premise is a huge, extreme speculative idea (a prude government numbing everyone from the waist down, another government handicapping everyone who's above average, a world straining under a miracle anti-aging drug) or something with minimal scope (a foster child out of control, a poor woman obsessed with redecorating her house, a strident politician met with an unsuitable daughter-in-law), these stories typically focus on a small, intimate cast of characters and just a few brief events. Vonnegut writes everyone with empathy or at least humanity. Antagonists play their parts, but without one feeling that the author has it out for them.

    The preface is an entertaining read. Vonnegut talks about his family, says the schmaltzy love story is autobiographical and explains, "When I write, I simply become what I seemingly must become."
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  12. NAHTMMM

    NAHTMMM Perpetually sondering

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    Death In Winter - Michael Jan Friedman

    Remember that one TNG episode where that guy did that thing? And that other episode where the other guy did some other thing? And about twenty other episodes too?

    Great, you don't have to read 30% of this book!

    This is set in the aftermath of Nemesis. It's probably the most recent Trek novel I've read. Picard is sitting around on the E, overseeing repairs and watching much of his crew head for other pastures. His only pleasure is Facetiming with Beverly, who's getting settled into her new job as head of Starfleet Medical.

    But we get a flashback to ~teen Beverly's encounter with a ship that crashes on her home planet. It carries furry refugees from the Romulan Empire, driven to seek help from the UFP for a plague destroying them.

    In the present day, with the Romulans in disarray, Beverly finally gets the chance to go to their blizzardy home planet on a covert mission to create a vaccine and incidentally destabilize Romulan influence in the area. The new Romulan Praetor, fighting off internal intrigue and upheaval on the Empire's fringes, wants none of that. And Beverly goes missing, presumed dead. Picard is given a ragtag team of previous guest stars and their emotional baggage, and told to see Beverly's mission through . . . and afterwards he can look for her if he insists.

    Meanwhile the Romulan dissidents are looking to force a showdown with the Praetor's forces, which are led by the wily Tomalak.

    This all makes for a pretty good plot, a chance for Beverly to be awesome, and plenty of angst for BonC shippers to feed off of. Unfortunately, all these guest stars, while great, mean that MJF has to spend time explaining/reminding about their backstories. And that takes up space. And there's a lot of incidental handholding, where we apparently have to be reminded of obvious things repeatedly for no clear reason except to take up space. And then Beverly spends several pages dreaming a transcript of the final confrontation in the Scottish Sex Ghost episode. Yeah. There are ways to accomplish all this compactly while furthering the pace or character or mood or anything else, but MJF mostly fails to do so.

    The story is a 2.5, maybe 3 out of 4 on the Trek novel scale, but the writing drags it down to a mediocre, but enjoyable, 2. There's a side plot where Worf and Geordi work to find out where Picard went to help him and Beverly out. Worf gets a few good bits there. Overall, still a better love story than Imzadi.
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  13. NAHTMMM

    NAHTMMM Perpetually sondering

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    The Andromeda Strain - Michael Crichton

    It is the year 1968ish. A top secret capsule, launched into orbit for top secret reasons, comes down ahead of schedule near a tiny Arizona town. Two men sent to retrieve it find the town a graveyard and then die themselves. Now the country's best men must get to the bottom of this, before whatever-it-is has a chance to spread.

    This is much better writing. It starts off pretending to be a popular history of an actual near-disaster, with a pitch-perfect acknowledgments preface, introduction of characters, and explanation of the government programs involved. Crichton doesn't wholly maintain that premise once the expository dialogue and POV character are established, but by that point I didn't care. A lot of careful-seeming details in science, government, and character histories, and academic citations at the end bring a ton of verisimilitude to the book. Some Big Ideas that maintain tension and speculation as to what will happen next. And there's a transmission electron microscope and X-ray diffraction! A very good read.
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  14. MikeH92467

    MikeH92467 RadioNinja

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    Superb movie that holds up quite well. At the time it was pretty much a "no-name" TV star cast led by Arthur Hill. In his introduction Chricton said that there moments of brilliance interspersed with moments of unaccountable stupidity. Print or film, Andromeda Strain is well worth your time.
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  15. NAHTMMM

    NAHTMMM Perpetually sondering

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    Yeah, that's part of the realism I forgot to mention. Characters do smart things and they behave a little slowly and they make flat-out mistakes, and it feels how people would act, not just plot points designed to point the action where the author wants to go.



    Next up is a lovely example of a story collection where they're all on the spine, a la Readers Digest Condensed. This is a Detective Books Club edition from 1978.

    Send for the Saint - Leslie Charteris

    Simon Templar, alias the Saint, is . . . well, he's a male fantasy. He's a free-wheeling globetrotter who talks like Bond, fights like Ali, meets hot girls, and freely unleashes his temper on the rich and powerful, while his peculiar morality alternates between defending the downtrodden and slipping away from the scene of the crime with his own choice of lavish reward. He has flawless recall, toned muscles, superhuman reflexes, and on and on. But his stories aren't lowbrow, crass entertainment, because there are a lot of big words like "absquatulated" and he makes snarky comments on society! The author keeps stressing his awesome capabilities so densely that I bounced off after the first few pages, but I came back and finished and enjoyed well enough.

    His first story is "The Midas Double" and it's a pretty good premise. The Saint gets abducted from the airport and brought to a wealthy Greek shipping magnate, who wants him to stop the doppelganger that threatens to pull his entire shipping business out from under him. The magnate's pretty assistant has her own doppelganger as well. The possibilities mix and match enough to allow the author to keep the reader guessing about this shell game.

    The second is "The Pawn Gambit". This time the Saint is a mole in a cruel, quasimilitary criminal organization that is rapidly growing beyond the British police force's restraint. Less of a detective story, it starts with an assassination in broad daylight and features more fighting and a shootout. We also find out that the Saint is aware that he can't smoke anymore because his author broke the habit himself. Okay then. Steinitz also gets weirdly typoed as Steinity.

    Both stories were enjoyable, self-satisfied prose aside (and that is a large aside), but I don't feel the need to look for more.

    Nothing's Certain But Death - M. K. Wren

    A much more traditional detective story. The star here is Conan Flagg, a Nez Perce bookseller who lives in a small resort town on Oregon's coast. He evidently snagged a concert pianist girlfriend in a previous story, and seems to be living the good life all around, up until he gets slugged by a drunken restaurant owner in the first chapter. Said owner was aiming for an IRS auditor whose work had doomed the restaurant to closure over tax evasion. When the auditor is found dead, Conan tries to prove the owner's innocence. This was a pretty satisfying read, aside from the fact that the general outline of the solution was pretty blatant by the end of the crime scene description, and then everyone's an idiot about it while we have to watch the owner be miserable the rest of the way. This suffers less from thesaurusitis, but still contains "incarnadined" twice and the ridiculous "strabismic". I wouldn't say no to another Conan story if the author can hide their trickery better.

    The Case of the Russian Diplomat - E. V. Cunningham

    We have an actual detective in this one, Masao Masuto, who is an American-Born Japanese Zen Buddhist working in Beverly Hills. A drowned, naked man is found in the pool of a famous Beverly Hills hotel, and as Masao investigates, he feels more and more that the worst is yet to come. This is a fast read, heavy on dialogue and eventually action. More of a combination of a procedural show and a gritty, everyone snaps at each other police force. I'd read another.
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  16. RickDeckard

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    Death's End by Liu Cixin

    The third and final book in the Three Body trilogy, this is mostly more of the same from the Chinese author and as such a distinguished conclusion to his story.

    The plot threads hanging from the first and second book are resolved within the first half. And from there the scope is expanded dramatically, with the sci-fi concepts once again being utterly mind-blowing. In particular, we get more insight into the nature of life in the universe. On a cosmic scale it's extremely pessimistic bordering on nightmare fuel - even moreso than had been implied by the preceding books, which were themselves dark enough. I wonder if this says something about the present moment for our civilisation. The humanistic vision of first contact with enlightened aliens is certainly being traduced.

    Issues with thin characterisations continue and there's a particularly unwelcome theme of misogyny that runs through the book. In retrospect this has always been present but is more pronounced here. It's tied up with some astonishingly bad strategic decision-making from humanity as they seek to survive. But chances are, if you've gotten this far, you're not here for that sort of thing - but instead to have your mind bent as much as it possibly can.
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  17. RickDeckard

    RickDeckard Socialist

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    Army of Evil: A History of the SS by Adrian Weale

    I'd rate myself as quite familiar with World War II, it's causes and so forth. But this seemed like an interesting lens through which to focus. Arguably the worst organisation ever to have been formed, led by some of the worst people to have lived.
    It charts the evolution of the SS from a loyal bodyguard, to a supposed racial elite, to its final form dominated by the Waffen-SS. Obviously the many crimes of the SS feature prominently and these are well-known. Stories of the atrocities never fail to shock, nor does the banal bureaucracy with which many of them were carried out.

    But what I found most interesting what were more obscure details, to me at least. That includes the insight given into the social background the SS and Nazi party. These were (generally speaking) people from and supported by the lower middle-classes. By contrast, the working classes tended to vote more heavily for left-wing parties, and the aristocracy considered them uncivilised upstarts. The latter fact in particular explains the existence of the Waffen-SS, a military force not dominated by the old Prussian nobility and their social elitism - and one which performed poorly compared to the larger Wehrmacht.
    It also includes insights into the internal politics of the Nazi party. Not monolithic by any means, this was in fact a coalition of various interests - most notably the Strasserist faction aligned with the SA, which sought a social revolution and which Hitler was determined not to give them after he attempted to don a veneer of respectability. It was this of course that led to Himmler's SS taking the lead on much of what the Nazi's did.
    Later, we see that the Wannassee Conference wasn't actually all that important in planning the holocaust, but is better seen as an effort by the SS to railroad the rest of the Nazi German state - many of whom had different priorities - into proceeding as they had already decided.

    It can be a little dry at times, with too many mini-biographies of the individuals involved. And I'm not sure that there was sufficient attention given to the rabid anti-communism of the SS, which was surely one of their primary ideological drivers. But it's certainly a worthwhile read about a well-trodden area.
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  18. RickDeckard

    RickDeckard Socialist

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    Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky

    This is one of Dostoevsky's earlier works and (some might say mercifully) much shorter than most of the others. It's a first person narrative by an unnamed 'Underground Man' based in Saint Petersburg in the 1860s. I thought it was excellent, much deserved of its reputation and as though-provoking as anything I've read in a long time.

    There are two sections. The first consists of Underground Man expounding upon his philosophy, such as it is. This consists basically of his contempt for and withdrawal from the world, and his rejection of the kind of rationalism and utilitarianism that was much in vogue in the 19th century. The second is a retelling of some pivotal events in his life.
    It's difficult to say where he ends and where the author begins, and in what parts Underground Man is telling the truth - which is probably why this is regarded as one of the first great works of modernism. There's certainly some of Dostoevsky in him, perhaps part of him in weaker moments. But despite his frequently Slavophile and reactionary attitudes, Dostoevsky elsewhere was never quite this misanthropic.

    I found the latter stages of the book unsettling. Was I supposed to be amused by Underground Man publicly humiliating himself in a restaurant when trying to attach himself to a group of former classmates? He's clearly got some serious mental pathologies. He constantly imagines violence against others but never follows through. Is he physically dangerous? The book ends with him (almost inadvertently) achieving a chance to connect with someone, who might help him and then blowing it because he's not able to handle it. That was fairly devastating.

    It's always striking coming to an older work like this and seeing just how influential it has been, it makes you think differently about a range of other things. Here we see in its genesis an entire century of existentialist literature - everything from Joyce to Kafka to Sartre. Travis Bickle is here too, almost in his entirety. It's true that books are made of other books.
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  19. Steal Your Face

    Steal Your Face Anti-Federalist

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    I listened to the audiobook a few times and it was like a therapy session. He was putting to words the things I have been thinking and feeling for a long time now. I have a physical copy as well and plan on reading it.
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  20. RickDeckard

    RickDeckard Socialist

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    And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

    Written in 1939 and reputed as Agatha Christie's best, I am lucky that I wasn't aware of any of the plot in advance, other than having imbibed some of the tropes that have been formed as an outworking of it's massive influence on the mystery genre. I hear that the original title was different and contained a racial slur, but that it has been changed in generally all editions for the last number of decades. It's not important to the plot.

    It's a mystery story about ten strangers being brought to an island, only for them to start being killed off one by one. While the culprit is not revealed until the final pages and the reveal makes complete sense once it happens, Christie manages to keep the identity a mystery and not at all obvious throughout - quite a feat. I will say that the answer did occur to me while reading, but only as one of many ideas.
    While the subject matter is incredibly dark, raising many questions about the nature of justice, the characters (who are all English types redolent of the period) spend most of their time, despite events, being polite and proper. The story zips along very efficiently, demonstrating that a lot can be crammed into less than 300 pages.

    This is a genre that I don't read a lot of, but having been suitably entertained here, I'll probably return to it - and Agatha Christie before long.
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  21. NAHTMMM

    NAHTMMM Perpetually sondering

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    Wicked River: The Mississippi When It Last Ran Wild - Lee Sandlin

    This is a great read. It's about the Mississippi River valley in the early 19th century, up through 1863 or so. This is the romantic period of Mark Twain, when voyageurs went up and (mostly) down the river in all sorts of craft, selling whatever they could get their hands on (legally or not), only to be largely superseded by the queenly steamboats, only for them to wither away in turn when the revolutionary Eads bridge allowed crosscontinental railroad travel.

    There are a lot of other topics covered. The basic physics of why the Mississippi moves its bed around, and how it was called the "wicked river" or "abolitionist river" for moving plantations from slave to free states. Wild weather and earthquakes. River towns having the respectable people up on a cliff and the disreputable riverfront down below as a "Landing" or "Under-the-Hill" for lawless riverfolk. River piracy, including the Crow's Nest gang whose island base was finally wiped out in the New Madrid earthquakes. Epidemics, blamed on dew or river mist. The Eastern popularity of river panorama exhibitions, the wild frenzy of camp meetings, the commercial money printed by private banks as redbacks and bluebacks, minstrel shows, and the Sultana disaster when a steamboat carrying thousands of freed war prisoners north exploded at night. The tall tales about "Mike Fink" and how they reveal the river's "submerged taste for the manic" that disturbed Easterners who spoke with President Lincoln. There are also narrower, more individual subjects, such as a woman living through the siege of Vicksburg, or a self-absorbed missionary turned travel writer, or a free black man who lived as a barber in Natchez, owned slaves, and kept a diary of who was dueling whom.

    It's not hard to discern that the author was at least partly inspired to write this book by Life on the MIssissippi, as several subjects of that book are particularly expanded upon here. Steamboats themselves naturally get attention, with their explosions being blamed on the workers not filtering the muddy river water used in boilers. Steamboats were glamorous and everyone of all cultures travelled by them, but they tended to be loud, crowded, and unpleasantly coarse to refined travellers, being full of the worst people of all: whittlers. There's also a chapter devoted to the uproar over John Murrell, who Mark Twain believed was a mastermind criminal thanks to one man's self-aggrandizing story of how he infiltrated Murrell's huge gang and exposed a plot to plunder the South under the cover of a massive slave uprising. The effect of this 100%-believed fake news was that a lot of slaves were tortured and killed, a lot of suspicious white folk were put on "trial" and driven out of town or killed, and gamblers in particular were thrown out of Vicksburg and stirred up the countryside as they evacuated north. And then laws against free and slave blacks alike were tightened to prevent any uprising from ever happening again, and the North learned the word "lynch".

    It's all very informative and absorbing. Best book I've read in a while.

    Oh I finally figured out why the author's name seems familiar, I have a physics book by Lee Smolin
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  22. NAHTMMM

    NAHTMMM Perpetually sondering

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    Sense and Sensibility - Jane Austen

    Her first published novel, I think I enjoyed it more than Pride and Prejudice. Both center on the same concept of the marriage prospects of daughters in a family that could stand to be a little richer. But I found S & S to have more of the overt wit and commentary I expected from P & P, plus more plot (such as it is) and more entertaining secondary characters. This time I also had previous experience with handling Austen's prose, which can get a bit convoluted at times. New vocab: douceur, nunchion.

    This edition mentions in the back a few "sequels" from the 1990s, just to remind us that there have always been people who call themselves fans of a work, and then make all the characters awful or miserable so they can project their idea of a good story onto the setting wholesale.
    Last edited: Jun 25, 2023
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  23. Jenee

    Jenee Driver 8

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    One of the reasons Austen’s work is still relevant today is because it focuses on the characters and the setting is the background. It’s like … picking up a new Superman comic. You already know the “world” in which the characters live. You don’t have to explain that female children were pawns for their fathers to barter for something of value. While this world and it’s ideology are a thing of the (recent) past, the personalities are still alive and well today. While Lydia and Marianne were characters written to be the bane of the “more sensible” sisters in each novel, I find I am much more like them than the older “more sensible” sisters. I made HUGE mistakes as a young woman.

    What I would have like to have seen in Austen’s novels is that both sisters accepted their bad decisions and was still able to continue learning and making more decisions that affected their lives - good and bad.
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  24. Murderface

    Murderface I'd rather die than go to Heaven.

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    Right this minute I'm reading Whiskey and Wild Women: An Amusing Account of the Saloons and Bawds of the Old West by Cy Martin. It's an older book, published in 1974, and more if a Reader's Digest version of the subject of bars and whores than anything academic, but it's been interesting and amusing so far.

    I just finished 1876: The Year of the Gun by Steve Wiegand which was about how so many years of the hig movers and shakers made such a huge impact in the lore of the Old West that year and how those events still live with us. Stuff like Custer's Last Stand, Wild Bill and his Dead Man's Hand, the James-Younger bank robbery in Minnesota, Bat Masterson and Wyatt Earp in Dodge City, and the Centennial Fair in Philadelphia.

    I definitely recommend that one.
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  25. Murderface

    Murderface I'd rather die than go to Heaven.

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    I just finished Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beer(Revised Edition) by Maureen Ogle. It's about the evolution of beer in America. It starts with some German immigrants in the midwest in the mid-1800s and how they built the first real commercial breweries. It then jumps backwards to explain that until them, brewing was a very local production, largely because beer can go bad quickly, especially when you consider that a lock of refrigeration was an issue. Basically beer production in the US can be broadly put into a few eras. Pre-1850ish, later 1800s to 1919, Prohibition, post-Prohibition to the 1970s, the Microbrewery Revolution, and finally the megacorporations buying up every brand. It also really puts the role of women in beer into focus; not so much the actual production but how the desire of women to have lighter and less flavorful beer gave us crap like rice as an adjunct ingredient (and how the war effort required so much use of other grains that it demanded the use of rice, so it wasn't just women's tastes) and decades of basically Budweiser, Busch, and other equally indistinguishable brands. It also looks at how things like InBev buying up every brand they can just to kill them has been a reaction to the microbrew revolution.

    It's a readable book, and not at all academic in tone (it's a popular history book after all), but it does get a little myopic at times, but it was an interesting read.

    I give it 4/5 rating.
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  26. RickDeckard

    RickDeckard Socialist

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    The Age of Revolution, 1789–1848 by Eric Hobsbawm

    I'm back to Hobsbawn again, this time tackling the first in his series covering the history of the modern world. The period is that from the French Revolution up to the middle of the 19th century, and the primary focus is on the "dual revolution" in the political sphere (French Revolution) and in the economic sphere (the industrial revolution, centred on England). The first half of the book provides a narrative on the period. Hobsbawm gives a broadly positive reception to the French Revolution and even to Napoleon, playing down the excesses and dismissing critics such as Edmund Burke as turgid reactionaries, before moving on to restoration of the old regimes in the post-Waterloo settlement and the further swing of the pendulum post-1830. His assessment of the rising bourgeoise in this period as being uncultured and austere is instructive.
    The second half of the book reviews changes in the arts, science, ideology and so forth. In general one gets the impression of an unstoppable tide. There were those working to hold it back but their efforts were halting and temporary. The focus is zoomed way out, focusing on the great movements and tides of history, with limited attention given to individual events or people. For my purposes, I found that very valuable. I'm interested in constructing a general picture of a period where my understanding is patchy and at some point I hope to fill in the details.
    It covers quite a bit of the same ground as Industry & Empire, which I'd already read (but which Hobsbawn wrote later). This one is from the 1960s and has dated in some respects as a result. As I cover the subsequent volumes and they come closer to the present day, I expect that this will become more of a problem.
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  27. NAHTMMM

    NAHTMMM Perpetually sondering

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    Mike Nelson's Movie Megacheese - Michael J. Nelson

    Another book from an MST3k alum that I picked up for super cheap. This one appears to be an augmented collection of 3-4 - page columns that Mike wrote for one publication or another. This is unfortunate, insofar as one only needs to be reminded so many times within the space of a single book that Adam Sandler and Jim Carrey are of the Devil.

    Other than that, Mike (I'm sorry, I can't refer to him as Nelson without feeling like I'm one of the bots) mostly skewers, lambasts, or backhandedly defends cheesy movies, TV series, and actor families. Plenty of self-deprecation too. It's entertaining but lacks the lighter touch (and predilection for toilet humor) of a Dave Barry. Mike recommends Night Court as a more accurate courtroom portrayal than Judge Judy, repeatedly alludes to the DVD phenomenon sweeping the nation, admires Sally Forth, and considers how The Ghost and the Darkness preys on the universal fear of being eaten by lions while working on a bridge over the Tsavo in 1898.

    This book is noteworthy for having Mike posed in the back cover in a smoking jacket (I assume) and holding a pipe, and for having a Leonard Maltin blurb on the front. Mr. Maltin does not rate the book two-and-a-half stars, but he was probably thinking it loudly.
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  28. NAHTMMM

    NAHTMMM Perpetually sondering

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    Mind Meld - John Vornholt

    After the events of ST 6, the Enterprise is assigned to pick up Spock's niece, Teska, from Earth and deliver her to Vulcan. There, in a top-secret ceremony, she will be betrothed to a Romulan boy snuck across the Neutral Zone for this purpose. If they undergo pon farr together in ~20 years, that may persuade even the most skeptical Vulcans that Romulans are descended from Vulcans (The Romulan Way is apparently out of print), and reunification will be easier.

    The ship will also return a Rigellian delegation to Rigel V along the way, as they're Vulcanoids too and nobody will look too hard at Teska. Rigellians are back-to-nature types with a superstitious obsession with numbers, and they rate about one Dathomir or Betazed on the overt sexuality scale. Also the delegation hates each other. This will be fun.

    It is largely fun. The visit to Rigel snowballs into a plot of its own, and the 7yo Teska has to choose between her Vulcan teachings, Earth experience, and attraction to the Rigellian homeworld. Spock does his best as her uncle.

    Now, there is a point where it falls to Kirk to be the voice of reason against the marriage scheme, and he tells Sarek that you just can't trust Romulans. This is a problem because this is right after TUC where Kirk was cured of his total distrust of Klingons. This book was published 6 years after the movie. There's no excuse.

    I also didn't like Spock thinking McCoy should improve his bedside manner by learning from the doctor treating Spock's wounds. I think at this point Spock says such things to tease Bones, but he doesn't mean them. And there's some good Kirk-Spock-McCoy banter in here, but Kirk has some bad regressions to his TOS recklessness too. He flat-out gets someone killed with a bad teleportation decision.

    But that's what I remember as the Vornholt experience: he'll give me a decent-to-above average read, but I come away not fully satisfied. This book is otherwise pretty good, with the Rigel setting and culture used to full effect, plenty of plot and action, everything balanced well. Maybe his best I've read. Just a few hiccups keep this a low 3 out of 4 on the Trek novel scale.
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  29. NAHTMMM

    NAHTMMM Perpetually sondering

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    Memory Prime - Gar and Judith Reeves-Stevens

    So these two nerds went and wrote a super-nerdy nerd-book about the nerdiest society in the galaxy making the nerdiest library possible, and inviting all their ubernerds to go there for the purpose of getting Nerd Awards for being such a bunch of nerds. Some jerk sees this as an opportunity to stab the Federation right in their nerd-heart.

    The events of "The Lights of Zetar" were basically the Federation librarian's 9/11. Memory Alpha had been famously unguarded and welcome to all who wished to learn. After its destruction, the military had a word in designing the replacement. Now, Memory Prime is the primary, heavily defended location in a decentralized data storage system. But it's still in a random asteroid. Accepting, regulating, and analyzing its massive incoming flow of data is the job of a set of artificial uberintelligences, each of which is just so awesome they make Data look like a walking abacus you guys. They aren't even sure whether the physical world is real or just a source of data. And there's these interface cyborgs who just sit in the center of the asteroid and talk to the uberintelligences through their fingertips! And Mira Romaine is in charge of the whole thing.

    Until the Federation gets wind that someone's looking to assassinate one of the scientists travelling to Memory Prime, there to participate in the Nobel and Alien Nerd Equivalent ceremonies, and thereby somehow destroy the Federation. What little information they have points right at Spock, and with a cranky Commodore in charge of the defensive operation, our heroes are tested to their limits like never before. There's a lot of nerd worldbuilding and nerd problemsolving and nerd talk in general, and apparently a lot of borrowing from previous Trek authors. Midway through I became convinced that this was a detective story in the genre sense, and the authors were breadcrumbing that a certain character would turn out to be the assassin in the end. But that wasn't how it turned out. Eh. 3 or 3 1/2 out of 4 stars, very good on a first read, aside from the worst nerdism of a humanoid character yawning "like a Rigellian bloodworm". C'mon now.
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  30. NAHTMMM

    NAHTMMM Perpetually sondering

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    Mudd In Your Eye - Jerry Oltion

    Kirk is called away from officiating a wedding with a dubious future to receive a priority mission. Two planets, Prastor and Distriel, have suddenly stopped their thousands-year war. Find out why.

    Kirk beams down into a gala party and discovers that 1) this war was really dumb and 2) this war ended for a really dumb reason: Harry Mudd convinced them to stop, purportedly to demonstrate to the Stelladroids that he's reformed.

    This being Harry Mudd, and this pair of planets being all too set in their peculiar ways, things don't go smoothly. What is Mudd really up to? Why are these people so carefree about killing and dying? Did -- did the author just kill off somebody who was going to have a big character arc? Is anybody safe? And what of the nature of matrimony?

    I'm gonna say it: Mudd is fine but he's no Cyrano Jones. But the author puts in enough worldbuilding, storylines, and heart to elevate this above the baseline. It doesn't hurt that Uhura, Chekov, and Sulu get plenty to do as well. 2.5 / 4 stars.
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