Books read in 2017

Published by marco on

Updated by marco on

The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine (2010)

by Michael Lewis

This is the book on which the movie was based. My review in that link was extensive and I liked the book just as much. Lewis really did a good job outlining the players, explaining the financial instruments and their holders, inventors, connections, weaknesses and ramifications.

It’s an extremely financially technical book and will prove a challenge for many to figure out what’s really going on. Lewis emphasizes several times that most people in the industry didn’t know how these things worked, but knew for approximately how long they would work, so they made money and unloaded them on unsuspecting saps before everything blew up. Others knew that the government would bail them out and just drove their companies into a wall, coming out smelling like roses anyway.

Lewis does a good job of highlighting both the criminality and the stupidity of so many in the industry—and also the hopelessness of any change coming out of the worldwide debacle.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

The Swift Programming Language (Swift 3.0.1) (2016)

by Apple

This is an incredibly detailed language specification for Swift and programming guide for iOS and OS X. The language itself is quite complex and includes so many programming features that it’s nearly dizzying. There are a lot of examples, as well as English-language translations of all of the examples. This leads to a lot of text, but you can get into the rhythm of skipping the few paragraphs after the examples to move on to the next concepts (especially if the code sample was abundantly clear).

The kitchen sink includes:

  • Functional switch statements (matching)
  • Inferred types
  • Argument labels
  • Very wordy Error-handling
  • An unbelievable number of keywords:
    • autoclosure: required when the developer wants to avoid closing over certain variables and creating cycles (which the reference-counter in Swift cannot break on its own)
    • convenience: identifies initialization methods that are not required
    • convention: indicates the calling convention to use: swift, block or c
    • defer: Swift’s version of finally
    • deprecated: An attribute to indicate when a feature was deprecated (see obsoleted)
    • discardableResult: functions are pure and results must be used; add this attribute to allow a result to be ignored
    • dynamic: trigger the compiler to use Objective-C–style method-dispatch
    • escaping: indicate that a lambda parameter is used outside of the called function
    • extension: add features to a type
    • infix: operator type
    • introduced: An attribute to indicate when a feature was introduced
    • lazy: explicitly indicate that a property initialization should be delayed until it is first called
    • obsoleted: An attribute to indicate when a feature was made obsolete (see deprecated)
    • optional: a feature of a protocol that does not have to be implemented in the implementing type (it can be satisfied by an extension instead)
    • postfix: operator type
    • prefix: operator type
    • required: identifies initialization methods that are not convenience
    • subscript: an indexer function (e.g. [x])
    • testable: an attribute that subverts the type/member/function visibility so that a test framework has access to internals
    • unowned: use a weak reference that allows the owner to cascade-delete the object that has the unowned reference to it
    • weak: a classic weak reference: the reference will be set to nil when the referenced object is deleted.
    • two types of generic constraints
    • and so on…

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

Notes from Underground (1850)

by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

This is a short book, split into two main parts. The first part is a cry of anger at society, spit out at the world from “underground” by the narrator. It is delivered in a nearly stream-of-consciousness form and opines on all sorts of social and philosophical issues—often winding back on itself to second-guess or to revise. The attached notes give abundant examples.

The second part is told by the same author, but in a more refined tone. It seems to describe an incident of mortifying self-awareness and banal evil that seems to have been the trigger for the previous narrator’s (same person, but 20 years later) having turned his back on society. The young man was exceedingly poor and exceedingly proud and took out his frustrations on an even poorer and more unfortunate young woman, destroying her feelings. All the while, he was completely aware of what it cost her and what it would cost him, but his brutal honesty in his internal—and, often, external—dialogue, didn’t allow him to stop himself.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

Rigged: How Globalization and the Rules of the Modern Economy Were Structured to Make the Rich Richer (2016)

by Dean Baker

Dean Baker puts together a comprehensive program to address massive inequality in America. The same inexorable and relatively straightforward logic could easily apply to other countries as well. The only problem with Baker’s suggestions is that they utterly fail to benefit the masters of the universe. Still, his proposals for addressing the real issues facing the American economy are breathtakingly easily explained. He lays out his plan without regard for political interest or ideology. He explains how an economy does not exist in some sort of natural state—that it is the creation of explicit policy. This is perhaps his most important point. Anyone who claims that the system that they prefer, which just happens to benefit them immensely, is also the morally pure one because it is “natural”—is full of shit.

Baker explains in detail which parts of the economy are actually productive and which are just collecting rent. There are vast parts of the economy that could be trimmed, with quite significant effects for the majority. For example, the financial industry, including what used to be traditional banking, is almost purely rent-seeking, providing no substantial or commensurate value. Another area is healthcare, where the U.S. pays twice as much per person as any other first-world nation. Or professions, like dentistry, medicine or law, where salaries are twice as high as in other nations (at least). Out-of-control CEO pay and the twisted incentives and controls of the boards of large corporations is another area where a rational cleanup would yield giant gains. Then there are copyrights and patents, which are government-granted monopolies—again, not a natural outgrowth of a so-called free-market system.

All told, Baker’s book illustrates in no uncertain terms the astounding degree—it’s nearly total—with which the benefits of increased productivity and income have been collected and funneled to a handful of rich people. All the while, they pay everyone in the intelligentsia and media to convince the sheep that this is just a natural result of them being so much better. It’s all bullshit.

Economies are human constructions and the one we currently enjoy has been constructed by the winners to benefit those winners. The first step is to open your eyes. Baker’s book will help immensely. Highly recommended.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

A Man Called Ove (2012) (en/2014)

by Fredrik Backman

This is the story of Ove, a man living in a town on the outskirts of a city in Sweden. Ove likes things predictable and can’t see why anyone would want it any other way. Other people are distractions and annoyances and constantly disappointing. The story is told in the third person, but from the viewpoint of a 59-year–old Ove. Some of the chapters are flashbacks to help readers understand why Ove is the way he is, how it’s possible for him to be at once cantankerous beyond all imagining and also a generous person.

His life arc starts with a mother who dies too soon and being raised until 16 by a father he honors and worships, until his father, too, is taken away by the grim reaper. Ove takes over his father’s job and his lifestyle, simple and direct, working hard and sticking to rigid principle. Most appreciate him for his work and attitude and forthrightness but there are opponents, one of whom, Tom, eventually leads him to lose his job. He learns construction during the day while cleaning trains at night. He meets Sonja, from then on his only reason for waking and drawing breath. She is likewise—and for all of her friends, mysteriously—enchanted. Though he doesn’t say much, he listens well—and he is bulky with workman’s muscle to compensate for his taciturnity.

They make a life together, moving in to the district where Ove lives in the present, with life dealing them one raw deal after another. They go to Spain on holiday, where a pregnant Sonja takes siestas with gusto while Ove wanders the countryside, making himself useful with his skills despite an almost complete language barrier. On the way home, the bus crashes, taking their unborn child as well as Sonja’s ability to walk. Nevertheless, they weather these tragedies well enough, settling into a happy and comfortable routine. The world begins to outpace Ove, with his dedication to fine craftsmanship in homes and cars seeing less and less value in the real world, a world filled with distracted idiots, flitting between ephemeral obsessions. This includes his new neighbors with whom he has entirely too much to do—the Pregnant Foreign Woman and the Lanky Fool with their two children. Throw into the mix a Bent and unwanted Housemate, a Mailman who doesn’t understand propriety or boundaries and a cat who seems to embody Sonja’s now-passed–on conscience.

Ove wants nothing more than to join Sonja wherever she’s ended up after succumbing to cancer but his neighbors manage to distract him from several attempts at ending it all, always in the nick of time. Ove grudgingly finds himself useful again, even loved. He teaches Parvaneh to drive, he helps Anders fix a bike and buy a car, he teaches a bigoted father to stop being a jackass and to be happy he has a son at all. He continues to be the man that Sonja always knew him to be. Until, eventually, and after a few years of a second life, he finally joins her.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

The Road to Wigan Pier (1937)

by George Orwell

This book is nearly divided into two parts.

The first details Orwell’s travel to the northern part of England to live amongst miners in their communities. These are not nice communities. There is nothing green about them. They live cheek by jowl in atrocious sanitary conditions, surviving on scraps of food and barely making meager rents on their meager salaries. The work is nearly incomprehensibly back-breaking. Shifts are long. Life is without purpose other than to greet another day of misery.

Orwell swings in tone from somewhat judgmental (of the bad seeds) to exceedingly praising (of the stalwart workers). He compares moral/ethical life in the north favorably to what is to be found in the south, where the posh Englanders reside. Many of his observations of the working class as well as the intransigencies of capitalism are just as true today as they were then.

For example,

“In a way it is even humiliating to watch coal-miners working. It raises in you a momentary doubt about your own status as an “intellectual” and a superior person generally. For it is brought home to you, at least while you are watching, that it is only because miners sweat their guts out that superior persons can remain superior.”
“This business of petty inconvenience and indignity, of being kept waiting about, of having to do everything at other people’s convenience, is inherent in working-class life. A thousand influences constantly press a working man down into a passive rôle.”
“It is only when you lodge in streets where nobody has a job, where getting a job seems about as probable as owning an aeroplane and much less probable than winning fifty pounds in the Football Pool, that you begin to grasp the changes that are being worked in our civilisation.”
“Life is still fairly normal, more normal than one really has the right to expect. Families are impoverished, but the family-system has not broken up. The people are in effect living a reduced version of their former lives. Instead of raging against their destiny they have made things tolerable by lowering their standards.”
“Twenty million people are underfed but literally everyone in England has access to a radio. What we have lost in food we have gained in electricity. Whole sections of the working class who have been plundered of all they really need are being compensated, in part, by cheap luxuries which mitigate the surface of life.”
“And the peculiar evil is this, that the less money you have, the less inclined you feel to spend it on wholesome food. A millionaire may enjoy breakfasting off orange juice and Ryvita biscuits; an unemployed man doesn’t.”
“Every middle-class person has a dormant class-prejudice which needs only a small thing to arouse it; and if he is over forty he probably has a firm conviction that his own class has been sacrificed to the class below.”

Sound or feel familiar? These things seem to be constants in our society, by now. These are the hard nubs of capitalism that remain when surface affectation has worn away.

The second half of the book is a treatise on the state of Socialism in his day. He is very supportive of socialism but quite critical of its practitioners. He exhorts them to be more practical and to come up with realistic recruitment plans that don’t involve insulting everyone who doesn’t immediately agree with them. There is a lot of material here that is 100% applicable to leftist (and, perhaps still, especially socialist) movements today, in the first quarter of the 21st century, nearly 100 years after Orwell wrote his remarks. He offers some solid and practical advice:

“To oppose Socialism now, when twenty million Englishmen are underfed and Fascism has conquered half Europe, is suicidal. It is like starting a civil war when the Goths are crossing the frontier.”
“To recoil from Socialism because so many individual Socialists are inferior people is as absurd as refusing to travel by train because you dislike the ticket-collector’s face.”
“The Socialist movement has not time to be a league of dialectical materialists; it has got to be a league of the oppressed against the oppressors.”
“But if you are constantly bullying me about my “bourgeois ideology,” if you give me to understand that in some subtle way I am an inferior person because I have never worked with my hands, you will only succeed in antagonising me. For you are telling me either that I am inherently useless or that I ought to alter myself in some way that is beyond my power.”
“These are the sinking middle class, and most of them are clinging to their gentility under the impression that it keeps them afloat. It is not good policy to start by telling them to throw away the life-belt.”

A full listing of citations is below. The first half of the book may be more amenable to most, but both halves are well-worth reading. Highly recommended.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

Divided: The Perils of Our Growing Inequality (2014)

by David Cay Johnston

This book is a collection of essays and studies on many different facets and types of inequality: Income. Education, Health-Care, Debt and Poverty, Policy and Family. The title and sub-headings listed prior say it all, actually: this book is about the root of America’s problem—Inequality. And not just income inequality, but wealth, opportunity, all of which add up to a purportedly democratic system that looks exactly like feudalism. You can read the essays in any order, but I read the book front to back. The book was published in 2014 and only one essay/study includes data from as recently as 2013. The others stretch back over decades, pinpointing the point when the U.S. left its path to turn the screws on its own populace. These essays show not only the problems we face, they show how we got here and what we need to do to get out of it. Spoiler alert: I bet we don’t take any of their advice. Recommended.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

The New Jim Crow (2012)

by Michelle Alexander

This is an impeccably researched, devastatingly factual, relentlessly focused and canonical volume on ongoing institutional racism against blacks in the United States. The argument is that the power over blacks that whites had through slavery was not eradicated with the end of slavery, but rather made to go (very temporarily) underground only to reappear as Jim Crow laws—laws that subjugated blacks just as effectively as slavery without the stigma of human chattel.

She continues the argument that the 20th-century (and now, 21st-century) United States prison system almost totally subverts civil-rights achievements by continuing the subjugation of blacks, sending them once again to a second-class society in America, just as effectively as slavery and the Jim Crow laws did.

The U.S. slavery laws designated black people as property. This kept them in an official lower caste. Once owning people was no longer socially acceptable, the caste system was continued by denying all sorts of rights with poll tests and other extremely precisely defined qualification systems, collectively known as Jim Crow laws. Once the Jim Crow laws were deemed illegal—and, more importantly, no longer socially acceptable—the elites pivoted once again and came up with a new way of relegating blacks to a second-class caste: criminalization.

Fueled by a tremendous propaganda effort—as well as very willing participants—one law after another was created, targeting blacks specifically in order to mark them as voluntary criminals and therefore unworthy of participation in mainstream society. The U.S. Drug War was instrumental in this mission. The many ways in which the criminalization of blacks was achieved are breathtakingly insidious and devious. The most devious part is that the latest incarnation disarmed the civil-rights movement’s best weapon: the morally offensive racial bias of Jim Crow laws tended to pull people together to support their discriminated brethren. By swapping race for criminality, they drive a wedge between potential non-criminal supporters and those who have supposedly chosen a life of crime.

Alexander presents her thesis relentlessly, heaping an irrefutable amount of information on the reader until the propaganda wall of all but the most hardened racists must be broken down. That might be giving people too much credit, though.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

Based on a True Story: Not a Memoir (2016)

by Norm McDonald

Norm’s purported autobiography is at-once multi-layered and tightly written. In few words, he paints a plethora of possibilities. The style is reminiscent of Twain, Vonnegut, Kafka and Burroughs. His stories—as was the case with these auspicious predecessors—are often seemingly inspired by hallucinogenic substances as well as completely fictitious—often bald-facedly so—and not at all autobiographical.

He is deeply funny. He is easily insightful. His writing is a pleasure to read. Some passages rear out of the work, standing alone as jewels of prosaic creation. He tells of his days and nights on the road, of his heroin and alcohol addiction, of his at-once madcap and lethargic friend, of his gambling addictions. He tells of growing up on an farm in Canada with the mysterious Old Jack, of his obsession with Sarah Silverman, his verbal sparring with Lorne Michaels, his simultaneous lack of and spectacular surfeit of success at comedy, his killer jokes that at-once cannot fail and always backfire.

His denouement or resurrection comes in the form of a ghost writer who emulates his employer to such a degree that the narrative line blurs and shifts and whipsaws, with Matryoshka-like nesting of ideas, plot-lines and authorial voices. Norm escapes to fight another day. Highly recommended.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

The Devils of Loudon (1952)

by Aldous Huxley

In this book, Huxley tackles the historical subject of the possession by the devil of the Urseline nuns in Loudun in the 17th century. The affair was a scientific and judicial disaster, by today’s standards. And our standards aren’t even very high, to be honest. The story centers on the prosecution of Father Urban Grandier, a priest in early 17th-century France in the Diocese of Lourdes. He is eminently fallible, especially as far as his vow of celibacy goes. He is not a very nice man, loving and leaving and focusing fairly narrowly on Father Urban Grandier rather than the concerns of his flock. He gives interesting and rousing services, but that’s about where his dedication to the flock ends. He is far more interested in personal power, in climbing the Church ladder and in boinking pretty young things.

Naturally, there are other forces at work, not including local and powerful merchants as well as other members of the Church in places as far-flung from Lourdes as Paris. Even Richelieu and Louis XIII are involved, at least by name.

Grandier’s single-mindedness eventually backfires as he collects far too many enemies—all of whom are bereft of any scruples or devotion to a sound justice system. When the prioress of a local convent goes off her gourd, her obsession with Grandier is the key to his undoing. His enemies harness her insanity, use several torturers/exorcisers to rouse similar libidinous and salacious feelings in the other nuns and then begin a campaign to blame the whole sordid situation on Urban’s consorting with the Devil and then corrupting and/or possessing and/or fucking the nuns (naturally, in absentia and through the demons he controls). The exorcism circus continues for months, if not years, establishing itself as very lucrative—if exhausting—for the nuns, who are forced to put on sometimes-daily shows

It’s all utter hogwash, as most participants—the accusers, Grandier and the nuns—know. Some believe in the possessions, but they are willing participants like the exorcist, who delights in sexually torturing the nuns with enemas and other implements, all in the name of God.

The book sounds more exciting than it actually is. There are long, historical sections as well as treatises on the mind of the average citizen of France (or the world, for that matter) at the time. These discussions of the state of psychology, science and sociology at the time are fascinating, if a bit long-winded. As well, the notion of demonic possession is placed into historical and scientific perspective. Huxley’s fascination and experience with psychedelics and altered mental states serves him well here, I think.

Huxley is extremely well- and widely read, freely mixing passages in the original, archaic French and Latin. The material is thoroughly footnoted and draws on both original source material as well as other studies of on this supposed possession done throughout the intervening centuries. His approach differs in that he examines the whole sordid tale through the lens of the 16th-century Frenchman’s context, complete with the social and scientific mores of the day that an average citizen had at his or her disposal. He dismisses the reality of the possession and tries to understand what lessons we can learn about human nature, religion and our capability of understanding the universe to any reliable degree whatsoever.

Again, this may still sound more interesting than it actually is. The prose is dense as well as a bit dated. I liked the overall story arc and was brought to the book by Ken Russell’s 1970 film, The Devils, which was fantastic.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

The Doors of Perception / Heaven and Hell (1954/1956)

by Aldous Huxley

This is a book in two parts. The first is called The Doors of Perception and is an analysis of one of Huxley’s mescaline trips. It interweaves nigh-painfully evocative descriptions of what he saw on his 8-hour trip with a history of visions and visionaries. The discussion includes an examination of social implications of various intoxicants and their relative efficacy in providing escape, insight and advancement.

The second book Heaven and Hell is a discussion of the thesis that much religious symbology is anchored in an effort to replicate/evoke/commemorate/trigger the majestic preternatural visions experienced on mescaline, peyote or sensory or nourishment deprivation. He discusses the relative facility of some artwork to transport individuals to other, more-visionary inner places. The efficacy of art to transport is relative to the age within which it was observed: modern society’s surfeit of color and distraction serves to dampen the power of artwork that would otherwise be more easily able to induce visions and insight.

While he does not offer a scientific or empirical base for his thoughts, his rumination on their ineffability—and his attempts to make it more effable with some sort of framework, a model—is very interesting. He seeks not to diminish religion but neither does he lend credence to any of their models as the one true way. The subconscious is to be mined for insight—and insight exists outside of provability. His model is of the antipodes of the mind, places separate from the conscious and even most of the subconscious mind, where a clearer, unfiltered lens on reality exists. Or, at least, seems to exist. At that level of abstraction, it doesn’t matter whether it’s “real” in a physical or measurable sense, but that it influences your everyday consciousness and makes you a more observant, peaceful and reasonable person.

These books, like The Devils of Loudon, are an investigation by a prodigiously learned, patient, curious, intelligent and open mind into difficult but overwhelmingly interesting topics for which there are no single answers, no roadmaps to enlightenment. The book includes voluminous appendices that comprise more than 1/3 of its pages. It’s not a self-help book. It’s not a scientific treatise. It’s a notebook of observations written by a master. Recommended.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

Die Kraft der Kälte (2015 − 2017/de)

by Wim Hof and Koen de Jong

I’d heard about Wim Hof before and was quite intrigued with his accomplishments, many of which are detailed in this book. The book is a series of stories about Wim Hof and how he came up with his regimen for resisting cold and disease.

He is called the Ice Man because he can control his body temperature and metabolism directly rather than autonomically. His technique works not only for him, but also for others. The book details how he’s been in sports laboratories to measure his metabolism, energy throughput, body temperature, pulse, blood pressure and so on. He’s been in an ice bath for almost two hours without his body temperature dropping from 37ºC.

He’s run a marathon in Finland, above the Arctic Circle. It took him over five hours, but he made it and he didn’t freeze. It was -16ºC. He ran in just jogging shorts and running sneakers. He did the same thing up to Base Camp 2 on Everest. On Kilimanjaro, he hiked up in 48 hours instead of the recommended 6 days, again in just shorts and no shirt. That time, he was accompanied by 24 people who’d trained in his technique. None of them were mountain climbers, some were afflicted with various diseases. All but one made it all the way up to 5500m and back down without assistance. None of them wore shirts or long pants.

He’s undergone experiments where he was injected with a light virus, that he then actively rejected. Soon after, a dozen of his students did the same thing, showing that the technique isn’t just limited to a one-time physiognomy.

The technique is pretty simple, outlined below (in German, because I read the book in German).

“Tief in den Bauch einatmen, dann ausatmen.
Tief in den Bauch einatmen, dann ausatmen.
Tief in den Bauch einatmen, dann ausatmen.

“Atmen sie in dem Tempo und Rhythmus, der Ihnen am angenehmsten ist.

“30-mal wiederholen.

“Beim letzten Mal komplett ausatmen, dann erneut sehr tief einatmen, wieder langsam ausatmen und warten.”

“Duschen sie wie gewohnt warm. Dann, immer noch mit warmem Wasser,
beginnen Sie mit den Atemübungen. Atmen Sie langsam ein und aus. Machen Sie dies ein paarmal und drehen Sie die Dusche dann auf kalt. Versuchen Sie,
ruhig weiterzuatmen. Stehen Sie eine Minute unter der kalten Dusche. In der zweiten Woche stehen Sie erst unter der warmen, dann zwei Minuten unter der kalten Dusche. In der dritten Woche stehen Sie erst unter der Warmen, dann drei Minuten unter der kalten Dusche. Under in der vierten Woche stehen Sie fünf Minuten unter der kalten Dusche, ohne vorher warm geduscht zu haben.

“Gut ist es auch, wenn Ihre Hände und Füsse einmal pro Woche ein Eisbad nehmen. Füllen Sie eine Schüssel mit kaltem Wasser und fügen Sie Eiswürfel hinzu. […] Halten Sie die Hände zwei Minuten lang in das Eiswasser, anschliessend die Füsse.”

That’s pretty much it.

October: The Story of the Russian Revolution (2017)

by China Miéville

This is a thoroughly researched retelling of the Russian revolution, as written by a master of Science Fiction and Fantasy. It takes the reader from February 1917 to October/November 2017. There follows a bit of an epilogue, sketching the following decades roughly, but that’s not the focus of the book.

The focus is on how the initial coup of Nicholas II transformed over nearly a year to the Bolshevik revolution. The summer sees a cavalcade of famous names, each placed in history: Lenin, Trotsky, Maslov, Kolchak, Semenov, Stalin, Sukhanov … the list goes on an on.

Allegiances whipsaw, bolsheviks gain in power over the summer, the second revolution in October was a near-inevitability in hindsight. A very interesting and very well-written unsnarling of an incredibly complicated and singularly important sequence of events. The hopefulness and solidarity of the socialists shines through at nearly every moment. They would, in the end, win for a only a few shining months before the clouds of totalitarianism descended. Highly recommended.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

The Island of the Day Before (1994/en–1995)

by Umberto Eco

This is the story of Roberto de la Griva, an Italian stranded on an island somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. We hear of how he was at the wars between the Spanish, French and Italians over northern Italy. We hear of how he lost his father. We learn of his education in the salons of Paris. We hear how he is railroaded into a journey to the other side of the world by French intriguers high up in government bent on learning the secrets of the Meridians before the Dutch.

We learn of various mechanisms by which one might determine the Meridian. Many are absolutely hare-brained and doubtless thoroughly researched by the author.

When Roberto ends up stranded on the island, he has arrived there after his first ship—The Amaryllis—has shipwrecked. On that boat, he’d befriended an Englishman (Byrd) who’d seemingly discovered a way of determining the meridian by using “empathy at a distance”, a ludicrous scientific theory whereby the blade that caused a wound can be used to influence the wound afterwards. Apply salve to the blade and the wounded is instantaneously soothed; apply fire and the wounded writhes in further pain. Since the action is instantaneous and occurs at a distance with no known physical mechanism, the clever Englishman wounds a dog in England, takes it with him on his journey, and then keeps the wound open for the entire journey to the Antipodes. The blade is subjected to actions at agreed-upon times, so that Byrd knows the time accurately enough in England to calculate his longitudinal position.

This is obvious balderdash and good riddance to the lot of them. Roberto sees that Byrd is most likely seeing what he wants to see and likely has no more real idea where he is than countless sailors before him.

When the ship wrecks, Roberto escapes with his life, bumping up against the Daphne, a pristine and (nearly) abandoned ship moored about a mile off of the eponymous island. Roberto investigates the boat, only to find unexpected scientific treasures that indicate that the Daphne was perhaps on the same mission as the Amaryllis. He suspects an “Intruder” on his boat and eventually meets Father Caspar (or does he?): a Jesuit, with whom he discusses various scientific topics like the position and motion of astral bodies, the composition of matter and so on. Many of these concepts are discarded theories from past centuries, lovingly brought back to life by Eco, the master of such arcana. In a way, the theories of today sound just as hare-brained, leading one to wonder with what laughter they will be greeted by subsequent generations.

The good father can make not only a water-pumped musical organ but can also teach Roberto to swim and has also invented an underwater diving apparatus. It is a veritable tour-de-force of 16th-century science. He drowns in it, trying to get to the Island of the Day Before?

Why is it called that? Because the good father believes he has navigated to the antemeridian, the Antipodes, so that the island lies constantly in yesterday relative to the Daphne’s today.

Was he correct? It is hard to know. He was trying to reach the island to get to the Speculum Melitensis, a device he’d constructed on the island that somehow encompasses every amazing bit of scientific knowledge and insight wrapped in one giant, delicate object. It was set up by Caspar and the sailors but has now likely dropped into disrepair. Subsequent chapters throw doubt on the reality of Father Caspar entirely.

Roberto also spends an interminable time wondering about the fire dove that Caspar described seeing on the island, but he fails to descry it even once. This does not stop Eco—in the form of the modern-day editor of Roberto’s tale—from going on at tedious length about everything he knows about doves and their significance in legend.

The book picks up significantly in the final third, as Roberto spins onion-shells of stories around his lady love, Lydia, whom he forces into a tryst with his nonexistent brother Ferrante (resurrected from his psyche) so that Roberto’s own love can be best expressed in a white-hot jealousy that he himself controls. Ferrante’s track through Europe and purported/fictitious crossing with Roberto—and all of the people Roberto met in Paris, like Richelieu and Mazarin—is a rollicking tale, well-told.

He ends up a pirate, heading for the exact island off of which the Daphne is anchored, on a ship crewed by micreants, with Lydia hidden on-board as an androgyne sailor and his nemesis lashed to a cross in the hold, serving in the role of the wounded dog in Ferrante’s ship’s longitudinal instrument. They visit island after island, one more bizarre than the next (similar to Gulliver in Swift’s tale, with Roberto serving in the role of the narrator from Cloud Atlas). None of this actually happens, other than in Roberto’s fevered mind, desperately trying to build a life with his love from hallucinatory fragments.

As usual with Eco, it’s nearly impossible to tell which way is up, which tale is true, whether Roberto is even on the boat or trapped on the island in the form of Ferrante, imagining himself elsewhere, or vice versa. The master at work.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

The Making of Donald Trump (2016)

by David Cay Johnston

Johnston writes a book that outlines several of Trump’s failed real-estate–development plans. But he, at the same time, documents how people were trying to sue Trump because they invested in him because of his good name only to find out that Trump is only tangentially involved with their real-estate investment. Are these people just stupid to think that Trump would be good for their property? Reading this book, there would be no other conclusion, since you don’t hear about a single successful thing that Trump has done. He seems to somehow own property all over the world, but none of it belongs to him and he’s only ever ripped off, failed or otherwise disappointed every investor who’s ever associated with him.

However, people still think his name is worth investing in, Companies pay him millions to use his name on their projects, even if he’s not involved. There must be a reason for this, but Johnston’s book does not provide it. Either everyone is an utter and irredeemable moron or Trump must have some successes to his name. There must be some—even a majority of—investors who’ve walked away satisfied, probably even coming back for more.

Many of the investors in his get-rich-quick schemes kind of seem like people who are getting what’s coming to them. They want to get rich, so they sink all of their money into a single opportunity with Trump. The man must have something going for him, or these people wouldn’t do that. Trump inflates his own story and ego all the time, nearly constantly turning the conversation to himself (as Johnston documents). He is a germophobe with poor social skills (as Johnston also documents). And yet, people invest their entire fortune with him.

Johnston is clearly only telling part of the story. He’s telling the part of the story where we shouldn’t vote for this man as President, where we shouldn’t do deals with him, shouldn’t invest money with him or go anywhere near him, where we shouldn’t ever pay attention to him again. Agreed. I’d been doing that already, before I read this biography.

However, the story Johnston tells is of sealed court decisions, suspicious and quite facially reprehensible behavior, but never a conviction. Trump’s had his casino license for decades but Johnston seems to attribute it to luck. Trump’s run multiple casinos for decades (even having the most successful casino in Atlantic City, according to Johnston) but he doesn’t know anything about the business and everyone makes fun of how stupid he is.

Trump is a bad businessman and a more terrible person, but everyone seems to be on Trump’s side, helping him out. Why? The story Johnston tells is of a person who is horrible, stupid and financially inept, who hangs out with obvious criminals, but who succeeds despite all of that. He can’t seem to fail enough to stop being a billionaire.

It’s hard to feel sorry for some of his “investors”. Whenever a story ends with someone having signed without reading because of time pressure…I kind of get distracted. I know that old people get entrapped in stuff like this.

In those cases, the charge is always of some information that Trump and his associates or partners failed to disclose properly. I’m almost sure it was disclosed somewhere—it was just that people didn’t read it in their eagerness to cash in. Otherwise, why would the court not nail Trump to the wall if it was so open-and-shut?

But why no prosecution? Is it because Trump—the bumbling, asocial fool—is so slick? Or because America’s system is so morally bankrupt? In a place like America, don’t sign anything without reading it. It’s your own fault if you’re trying to get rich quick.

The fact that these cases ended in a settlement with no criminal charges or sentence suggests to me that there’s more to the story again. It’s possible that such malfeasance is nearly impossible to prove in America, or that Trump really knows everyone and buys off judges and DAs—but that’s a much bigger charge. Instead, we’re expected to believe that he just gets away with it because “reasons”. No charges or sentence—but we know he did it.

Trump gets away with everything short of murder, associating with terrible people and having a very suspicious business. But he’s still going. He’s still in business. He’s now President of the USA. The story Johnston tells goes nowhere in explaining how this could be. He just deepens the mystery.

Trump says many things that are not true. Are they lies we should care about? Or did he change his mind? Or does he just not care what the answer is to a question he feels he shouldn’t have to answer from someone who he feels doesn’t have the right to ask it? Trump is an egomaniac, of course. He’s a liar, of course. But, as a private citizen, he has no obligation to answer a journalist’s question truthfully, especially when it concerns his near-future whereabouts or his personal affairs.

It is here that, again, I feel Johnston is really reaching for straws, trying to paint every nugget of data he has on Trump as not only negative (and that it most certainly is and probably fairly) but damning. I think it unfortunately weakens his case because he’s taken the shotgun approach, with topics of wildly varying import. The ones that sound important peter out into no prosecution (and hence possibly speculation) and the ones that don’t sound important then just seem petty and cheap.

He expects us to conclude that where there’s smoke, there’s fire, despite decades of smoke without ever having proof of fire. His evidence is persuasive, but I’m not a judge or a lawyer. I’m not in charge of prosecuting Trump: dozens of judges have had that pleasure. None of them have put him away. He’s still going.

A true believer would round up each allegation to a conviction, but thats not how our system works.

Johnston seems to vaguely imply some sort of angel on Trump’s shoulder, but it’s more of a condemnation of the American system as a whole that Johnston isn’t willing to come right out and make. The system is corrupt from top to bottom and a creature like Trump is perfectly suited to swim in those fetid waters. Johnston seems to be desperately trying to show how obvious it is that Trump shouldn’t be a winner in a sane society. He makes a good case. The fact that Trump is winning more than ever suggest a whole other book that needs to be written—this one about America.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

In Cold Blood (1966)

by Truman Capote

This is the story of a brutal multiple-murder in Kansas in the late 1950s. Truman Capote puts together an exquisitely researched and well-told tale. It is a masterful exemplar of historical fiction, in that the facts are clearly represented, but they are decorated with fictive imagining of conversations that add a lot of flavor without distracting from the story or making it feel fake. In particular, a lot of the book involves the interaction between the two perpetrators before, during and after the murders—something that Capote could only have gleaned from interviews and notes, but that he writes as if he’d been there. Expertly and nigh-poetically written. Highly recommended.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

Planet Hulk (2006)

by Marvel

This is a comic-book series that follows the banishment of the Hulk from planet Earth by Reed Richards, Tony Stark, Dr. Strange and Black Bolt. The Hulk is enraged (obviously) and, instead of landing on the intended peaceful planet, where he would have been safe from harming anyone, he lands on a gladiator planet. Naturally, he excels there and ends up conquering the planet, solving all of their societal problems and ending up as a benevolent and much-loved dictator.

At the very end, his rage is pushed to galactic levels by a final explosion from his ship that obliterates much of his capital city, killing his wife and unborn child and paving the way for World War Hulk. Some of the book were beautifully drawn—the stories were less inspiring. It’s difficult to write a book about a character who cannot be harmed, has ultimate power linked to rage and who has a healing factor. Everything feels like a deus ex machina and there’s little tension. Still and all, a fun and distracting ride.

World War Hulk (2007)

by Marvel

This is the follow-up to Planet Hulk. I started reading this one first, but was so intrigued by all of the flashbacks that I stopped and read the original series first. It’s not that you wouldn’t be able to figure it out without it—the books not only repeated more than enough detail from Planet Hulk to let a reader know exactly what was going on, they also repeated the details of this current series again and again, each time from a different perspective—that of the main characters of the book in which that segment of the story appeared.

This is the story of the Hulk’s enraged and revenge-seeking return to planet Earth, accompanied by his “war-bound”—friends that he won though common combat on the planet to which he’d been inadvertently banished. Over the course of this series, the Hulk defeats absolutely every being sent against him, even heretofore unbeatable enemies like Black Bolt and the Sentinel. His powers are God-like and make storytelling somewhat difficult (again). There is at-times little tension, except when he is somehow and mysteriously weakened in order for him to be temporarily defeated by much-weaker opponents.

The storytelling is quite uneven and plagued by everybody being awesome and smartest in the universe and unfathomably powerful, etc. etc. Is it Sentinel? Galactus? The Hulk? Dr. Strange? I lost track of the ordering and just enjoyed the at-times spectacular artwork. Don’t some for the story, come for the pictures.

The Fifth Season (2015)

by N.K. Jemisin

This is a very good book. It took me about a 100 pages to get into it, to get used to the storytelling rhythms of the author, to the at-times deliberate obfuscation and confusion. I feel that it took Jemisin that long to get into it as well, because the storytelling felt much more fluid in the later 70% of the book than in the first 30%. It is entirely possible that this is purely my fault, I’ll admit. I’m not getting any less-set in my ways. I just offer it as a warning to those who may be similarly put-off by the storytelling style—stick with it; it’s worth it.

This is the story of an alternate Earth—one we learn follows our own auspicious, but ultimately doomed age—on which “Father Earth” plays a much-more active and vicious role, through extreme geologic events. Humans have split into distinct species, with distinct powers. The primary focus of this book is on the orogenes—humans who can draw power from any source, but primarily use the immense powers of the Earth itself. There is an arcane hierarchy amongst them. The least of them can manipulate the earth, but with no fine control. The most advanced of them can control molecules and draw immense power from disparate sources.

There is so much going on in this book: The Guardians, the Fulcrum, the Leadership class, the Orogenes, the Geomesters, the Stone-eaters, Alabaster’s power and history and rebelliousness, Syenites power and connection to the floating obelisks, supposed relics of long-dead and failed human civilizations that followed the loss of Father Earth’s “child”. These relics litter the planet in innumerable number, each serving as the tombstone of a civilization that failed to prepare properly for the often-long Fifth Seasons—sometime decades-long intermezzos initiated by cataclysmic geologic events.

The book is ostensibly about Syenite but is split between three tales, each of which tells of another facet of her life, though this doesn’t become clear until late in the book (a feature that requires trust on the part of the reader—a trust Jemisin is ultimately a worthy of). It felt a bit derivative at first, but then I realized that it was following in the lines of other books and series that I’ve really liked (e.g. Potter, Dune, Song of Ice and Fire) and that it was mixing these concepts in its own unique and well-written way. It’s a rollicking tale—at times almost too quick-moving, cramming in so much at once, but somehow suitably controlled—and I’m looking forward to book two.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

The Name of the Wind (2007)

by Patrick Rothfuss

This is book one of the Kingkiller Chronicles. It details the life of Kvothe, a preternaturally gifted young man. He is of the Edema Ruh, a family that is a traveling troupe of unparalleled talent. His parents are the leaders of this particular clan and teach him much of what they know. Along the way, they pick up an arcanist, Abernathy, who begins to teach the precocious young Kvothe much of what he would need to know to attend the University.

Tragedy strikes when the boy is just 12 years old. His father has written a song about ancient tales of ancient powers whose feats and powers—and evil—have largely been lost in the mists of time: the Chandrian. These creatures were wakened by the constant repetition of their names—names are powerful things—and they sought out and savagely killed the entire troupe. All, save Kvothe, who survives with only the clothes on his back.

He makes his way to a local city named Tarbean where he lives on the streets as a pitiful wretch, a beggar on the edge of existence. After several years, he finally manages to escape and makes his way to the University. There are adventures galore and Rothfuss tells the tale well. Kvothe gains entrance with his precocity, gains favor among some of the masters and makes lifelong enemies of others. His time spent studying with Abernathy serves him well. He ekes out a living playing the lute. Even at his young age, he’s extremely talented from his genetics and his upbringing.

Near the end of his first year of school—after having more interesting and believable adventures, usually with his three bosom companions, Manet, Simmon and Wilem—he finally gets wind of a possible Chandrian sighting and heads off on a grand adventure. He ends up battling a dragon (of sorts), learns more of Denna, a fair maiden who he will continue to pursue (kind of) and returns with enough wealth to finance his next semester of school.

The story is told as a retrospective from Kvothe’s (Kote’s) inn, in a world grown gray and evil, long after the tales he tells.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

The Mammoth Book of the Best of Best New SF (2007)

by Gardner Dozois

This is a gigantic collection of science-fiction short stories and novellas. From the title, it’s the “best of the best”. That is, there is a “best of” collection edited every year by Gardner Dozois—and this is a “best of” just the stories already distilled from those works. There is a wide range of authors represented, though almost all of them have won one or many more of the most renowned and prestigious sci-fi and fantasy awards, like the Hugo and/or the Nebula. The stories are, for the most part, extremely good and well-worth reading. As someone who raised himself on a diet of golden-age and silver-age science fiction as well as a lot of 80s and 90s science fiction, it’s really interesting to see where things have gone over the last 20 years during which I’ve been paying far less-close attention (though I never went away entirely: I follow some authors, like Gibson and Stephenson and Egan and Baxter very closely).

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

Charlie One (2016)

by Seán Hartnett

This is an autobiography by a man who grew up in the Republic of Ireland and joined the British Army in the early 2000s. At that time, the non-sectarian civil war had subsided to a great degree, but the British Army had a (supposedly) incredibly dense surveillance network in Norther Ireland, to keep an eye on the Republicans there. Seán rose quickly to become a quite adept signals technician and served at one of the most highly secretive and deep-undercover bases in Northern Ireland. They were allowed no contact with the outside world while on duty and had very little leave. The book details the major operations in which he was involved, focusing heavily on the technology of surveillance. It was more interesting than I expected it to be. The writing style is as you would expect from ex-military: Hartnett comes off extremely well in his re-tellings and there is lots of drinking.

The Secret History of Twin Peaks (2016)

by Mark Frost

The book starts a bit slowly, but quickly picks up pace as the early mythology of the TP universe starts to weave into parts we know from the TV show. The story is told from the point-of-view of an FBI agent pulling together all of the threads, assisted immensely by a research document put together by someone called The Archivist. The agent’s contributions are solely in footnotes. It is there that ze[1] pursues the identity of the Archivist.

The story weaves in every UFO and presidential and military conspiracy theory known in the States, with JFK and Nixon featuring prominently. The ur-myth of Twin Peaks is rooted in the terror that the world has at the discovery and use of nuclear weapons—and the accompanying caution with which this discovery is observed by other beings. I say “other beings” because it is clear that the term “extra-terrestrial” is explicitly not appropriate. While the term “otherworldly” might fit, it’s clear that there is a strong likelihood that these beings have been on the planet longer than sentient mankind.

It’s an interesting story, nicely told. I read it after watching all three seasons and it was quite satisfying.

In the end, the author’s initials TP stand for Tamara Preston. The identity of the Archivist? Major Garland Briggs.

The format is not very E-book–friendly. It includes many newspaper clippings that can only be properly read—especially in dimmed light—by zooming in and panning. They do, however, lend a realistic, investigative feel to the material, though they slow down reading considerably.


[1] He or she.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

The Wise Man’s Fear (2011)

by Patrick Rothfuss

This is the second book in the Kingkiller Chronicles, the story of Kvothe.

This, too, is a story of a modern world that has forgotten its origins, its old power. Where each step along the path of knowledge is on a newly visible but well-worn path. A rediscovery of ancient truth, of deeper currents beneath the eddies of the superficial, modern, meaningless and ephemeral world. The deep origins of the world of the Fae, the shapers and their God, the original and most powerful one. As if all that ensued was a fading of the original nova, much as our universe is the mere echo of the big bang. That is, perhaps, the difference between science fiction and fantasy: one tells of expansion from strength to strength, a climb out of benighted ignorance, whereas the other tells of a relearning of ancient pinnacles, lost in the mists of time. The shape of its vast greatness can be vaguely discerned, but not in any way recaptured.

Mortals live in their world of material goods, squabbling over table scraps, while deeper currents of power course through an unseen world, intrinsically entwined with theirs, but separate and accessible only through twisted passages like the Adem’s Lenthian or the Arcanist’s Heart of Stone, Alar or the Names of things. The lines of force of the world are accessible to precious few and then only through nigh-inscrutable byways with little relation to rhyme or reason. Only instinct and a meditative letting-go of all that one knows is sometimes the only way to perceive it, to say nothing of harnessing it.

The more one sees of this deeper world, the more easily one dips into its powerful eddies and currents, the more unmoored one becomes from the mortal realm. That is the nature of the Sleeping Mind. This concept was also mentioned in the Star Wars canon: access to the Force is only possible through slippery, peripheral means, exercising muscles over which there is, at least at first, only autonomic control.

The deep history is unknown to the surface dwellers, the Amyr are a warrior sect mere centuries old to them, the powerful evil of the Chandrian hidden and woven into inconsequence behind tapestries of children’s stories.

The Chandrian are mixed up in this somehow, nearly invisible in the mortal realm and deeply feared in the world of the Fae.

This tale is paralleled on our world as the superficial world in which most people live versus the deeper world of science and logic, the knowledge of which transforms so much magic to mundanity.

We see in Star Wars as well, when Luke discards the light saber: he has realized that this is the crude toy of a child, that the Sleeping Mind is much more powerful without such crude tools. It explains Luke’s look of disappointment when Rey still didn’t understand that the light saber isn’t anything compared to the true power of the force, of the Sleeping Mind.

In a sense, these are all religious stories. This is a particularly interesting and good one. Kvothe continues at University, but then takes time off to seek patronage from the richest man in the kingdom, the Mair. He serves him well and climbs the echelons of power there before being sent on an excursion to wipe out a nest of bandits in the Mair’s lands.

This he does with a band of mercenaries, one of whom (Tempi) is Adem, a sort of Shaolin cult. They find the bandits, Kvothe uses his power to call the wind and his arcanist tricks to overwhelm them—and catches a glimpse of their leader, who is Cinder, of the Chandrian. They collect a tremendous amount of gold from the defeated bandits’ camp and head back. On the way, Kvothe is seduced by Felurian, a queen among the Fae, a mystical sidereal realm. We learn all about that realm, hear the Cthaeh’s oracular predictions and then witness Kvothe’s miraculous return to the mortal world. From here, he learns more of Tempi’s martial art and then accompanies him back to his lands. Here he is trained in the art and passes an initiation rite, once again using the name of the wind. Instead of staying at the school, he leaves, defending the honor of the Edema Ruh as well as saving some damsels in distress along the way. He returns to the Mair, then to University. He doesn’t have a patronage, but he does have guaranteed tuition as well as a salary from the Mair. He leverages these things to enrich himself and establish a solid life at the University. He now knows how to learn what Elodin is teaching (which is good, because that’s the smartest man in the book). He finds Denna again and reconciles with her, after a fashion.

The book ends with Kvothe (Kote) once again the innkeeper, long after the time of the tales he tells. We all wait with bated breath for the final installment. Recommended.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

The Obelisk Gate (2016)

by N. K. Jemisin

This is the second book of the Broken Earth series. We follow Essun on her journey south, away from the massive Rift at the equator—the one that Alabaster ripped in order to break the stranglehold on humanity of the Fulcrum and the equatorial cities. Essun still seeks Nassun, her daughter, who is even further south. She joins up with Hoa, a strange child and Tonkee, a filthy but intelligent comm-less woman. They end up in Castrima, an underground chamber of crystals that are run by ancient technology to provide water and energy for its denizens. There is a sort of safety there, with an uneasy peace between humans and orogenes.

We learn that Tonkee is actually a Leader who Essun met many years ago, when she was in-training at the Fulcrum. We also learn that Hoa is actually stone eater—and that there are other stone eaters in Castrima. They have their own agenda. There are others that helping a city to attack Castrima (Rennanis). The crystal cave is indefensible. Even Alabaster—who has also returned, with his own stone-eater Antimony in tow—cannot help, as he is turning to stone himself (every time he practices orogeny—or magic, as he teaches Essun). He teaches Essun much more of humanity’s deep history and much more about how to control orogeny on a deeper level—on the level of magic (the silver).

Meanwhile Nassun is learning all of this on her own, without anyone’s help, mastering magic in a way the Essun likely never will. Still, Essun uses the Obelisk Gate to fight off Renannis’s attack—and to strike at the heart of the city to destroy them once and for all. She also uses the tremendous power to hunt and trap (but not kill—even she can’t do that) stone eaters in the crystals of Castrima. She is the second person to control the gate in millenia, after Alabaster, who used the Gate to create the Rift that started the latest Season.

The book ends with Alabaster having died (or been transformed), Castrima on the move and Nassun in Antarctica. We have learned much more about the myths underlying this world and this version of humanity’s history—but it’s nothing compared to what comes in the third book.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.