Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Books Read in 2017, Part 3

Part 3!  Come for the books, stay for more books!


Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language (Patricia T. O’Connor and Stewart Kellerman)

Since the most recent installment in the Laundry Files wasn’t due to be released for another two weeks, I had to take a break and read other things.  This is a fairly light romp through the weirder corners of the English language and is pretty much exactly what the subtitle says it is.  O’Connor – who is clearly the lead figure in this authorial pair, though whether she was the lead writer is an open question I suppose – cycles through any number of common ideas about the origins of phrases, the propriety of grammatical forms, and so on, gleefully demonstrating that the stories you have heard from your teachers, editors, and barfly friends are incorrect.  The villains in her world are the 18th-century Latinists who insisted that the English language – a Germanic tongue – behave more like Latin and therefore imposed all kinds of strange grammatical and spelling requirements upon unsuspecting English speakers.  It’s a fun book for those of us who are language nerds, but probably not for anyone else.

A World Lit Only By Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance (William Manchester)

I have long adored this book solely for the title, which is one of the most evocative descriptions of medieval Europe (and all of the human-centered globe prior to the late 19th century) that I have ever heard, though I had not read the book until now.  The book itself is both fascinating and fragmented – three almost completely separate sections loosely connected by the original purpose of Manchester’s investigations into this period, which was to write a short introduction to a biography of Ferdinand Magellan.  The first section – by far my favorite – is a brief overview of the late medieval European mindset.  This was a world where, with vanishingly few exceptions, nothing major had changed in nearly a thousand years.  People assumed that all knowledge was already known.  Life was cheap, brutal, often ugly, and generally short, but within its compass lightened by enough humanity to get by.  This is his baseline.  The second, much longer section, is a detailed description of Martin Luther’s rebellion against the Catholic Church.  Manchester loves the details, and the sexual license, corruption, nepotism, and power struggles of the late medieval papacy are intricately set forth (one almost but not quite achieves a certain sympathy for Lucrezia Borgia), while Luther himself emerges as a complex, driven, and entirely unlovable figure, very much a creature of his late medieval upbringing despite his critical role in bringing that era to an end.  He also seems to have had an overwhelming anal fixation that later generations have mostly ignored in the interest of propriety but which fit the crude, violent medieval culture that produced him quite well.  The final section is also quite detailed – a blow-by-blow account of Magellan’s trip around the world, the first such expedition to make that journey even if Magellan himself foolishly threw his life away near the midpoint of it.  Manchester makes the interesting point that the first person to actually circumnavigate the globe was Magellan’s slave Enrique who was born in the southwest Pacific, taken to Europe as a slave, and then returned home from the east on Magellan’s ships.  This is an episodic book that doesn’t really hang together, but is well worth reading for its parts.

The Delirium Brief (Charles Stross)

The fecal matter has hit the rotary air mover in the world of the Laundry.  With the catastrophic events at Leeds covered in The Nightmare Stacks, the Laundry is now fully public and, for the first time in several books, the focus shifts back to Bob Howard.  Bob is now the public face of an organization that is overstretched, deeply suspect, and threatened by two interlocking enemies.  On the one hand, there is the Sleeper in the Pyramid, an occult force of unspeakable horror working through its old agent, American evangelical leader Raymond Schiller.  On the other hand, there is the British government, an organization composed of precisely the kind of currently fashionable and violently ignorant free-market ideologues who would be open to shutting the Laundry down hard and then privatizing it.  The fact that Schiller is leading the American corporate group that is stepping in to provide those services once the Laundry is privatized is just extra.  The Black Chamber (the US version of the Laundry) has been co-opted and turned.  Old enemies will re-emerge in new lights, under the slogan “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”  Old friends will see their resolve tested, their lives threatened, and their best work turned inside out.  Bob – the heir of Angleton and now a Deeply Scary Sorcerer and high muckmuck himself – is left to work with the Senior Auditor, Persephone, Johnny, Mhari, Mo, Brains, Alex, and Cassie in a fugitive rump version of the Laundry to head off the worst by bringing about the second worst.  And on that dark note, we await the next novel.

Justinian’s Flea: The First Great Plague and the End of the Roman Empire (William Rosen)

From small things come great changes.  This is, essentially, the point of this book – an examination of the heyday and collapse of the Eastern Roman Empire (sometimes called the Byzantine Empire) as seen through the lens of the Plague of Justinian, the first documented major pandemic of what we now know as bubonic plague.  Documented is, of course, a relative term – events from the 6th century CE were hardly documented at all by modern standards, and time and distance have each taken their toll on the historical record.  So Rosen divides his book into four broad sections.  The first basically sets up the Eastern Roman Empire, tracing its emergence from the wreckage of the older and more united Roman Empire, as well as noting the rise to prominence of its most talented and famous ruler, Justinian.  The second section describes Justinian’s zenith – roughly the decade between 530 and 540 CE – and spends a great deal of time on such things as the construction of the Hagia Sophia, the civic politics of Constantinople, and the wars of conquest fought by Justinian’s generals, notably Belisarius.  The third section is narrowly focused on the plague itself – the life cycle and structure of the bacterium, the vectors of transmission and how climate factored in, trade relations and their impact, and so on.  Finally, there is a fourth section describing the political and military impact of the plague on the empire, notably in contrast to the Persians and the later Islamic powers.  Much of the book is therefore tangential to the disease itself, though Rosen tells his story entertainingly well.

This Other London: Adventures in the Overlooked City (John Rogers)

For someone who is not much of a traveler, I do enjoy travel memoirs.  This one is a bit unusual in that the traveling is not all that far from the author’s home in London.  Rogers – whom I suspect I would know if I were English, since he does give off the vibe of a minor celebrity comfortable within his level of fame – is an urban explorer of a particularly British sort, the kind that is prone to long ambling walks through unheralded corners of the vast metropolis that is London.  The book is divided into ten chapters, each detailing a specific jaunt through bits of London not often seen by anyone who doesn’t live there.  Rogers has a good grasp of the fact that the landscape is just a story prompt and he is a lively and generally enjoyable companion that way.  Each chapter is prefaced with a fairly useless map – unless you’re familiar with the area to start with it won’t help, particularly since many of the landmarks he discusses aren’t on them – and occasionally graced with black and white photos that give off an air of being far murkier than they actually are.  It’s astonishing how much green space London still had  in 2014, when this book was published, and it did make me want to visit again.

Prince of Thorns (Mark Lawrence)

Honorous Jorg Ancrath – Jorg to his Brothers – is, by his own description, an amoral sociopath.  It’s not a bad thing for the leader of a band of professional mercenaries to be.  He’s also thirteen when this book opens (fifteen when it ends), what we would call a PTSD case if this were set in our current world, and, just to add to his burden, the heir to the throne of Ancrath, one of a set of tiny little kingdoms that have been at war for generations in an attempt to restore the broken empire.  Jorg is driven, lucky, and callously cruel, and when he breaks off his aimless quest for destruction – itself a break from his quest for vengeance – to return to Ancrath and confront his father, it goes about as well as can be expected.  Eventually he sets out on yet another quest, one that he hopes will lead to his long-term goal of becoming the new emperor.  He just might do it, at that.  This is a dark, violent, unapologetically grim and bleakly cynical book of sorcery and swords – the first of a series – that appears to be set in what was once northern France about a millennium after our civilization disappeared in a blinding flash of apocalyptic nightmares.  Jorg reads ancient Greek philosophers and refers to the Pope (a woman, apparently) but knows little about our civilization, which he and others refer to as the Builders.  All of the setting arrives in small doses that become more pointed as the book rolls on – the fate of Castle Red leaves little doubt as to the nature of the apocalypse, though I’m not convinced those devices actually work that way.  I was given this series by my nephew as a return for lending him Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy, and I can see how this seemed an appropriate response.  It’s well written and pulls you along, and so to the next volume.

King of Thorns (Mark Lawrence)

Prince Jorg of Ancrath is now King Jorg of the Rennar Highlands, thanks to his victory over his uncle, and he has work to do.  He plans to be emperor, to restore the throne lost for over a century.  He longs for his newfound aunt (roughly his age), Katherine ap Scarron.  And he seeks, not absolution, but knowledge of his guilt, of the shade of the dead child who haunts him.  Jorg remains brutal and violent in a fairly realistic medieval sort of way that William Manchester probably would have approved of, and the story follows three separate tracks – one set four years earlier, shortly after the events of Prince of Thorns, which sees Jorg traveling across what was once Europe, battling armies and firemages, trolls and kings; a second set in the present day as the massed armies of Orrin of Arrow seek to reduce Jorg’s castle to rubble; and a third as Katherine slowly wakes to her own story on the pages of her diary.  And all the while the long backstory of the Builders, who destroyed their civilization in a day of Burning Suns, comes closer and closer to the surface.  It’s an odd thing to combine epic fantasy with post-apocalyptic storytelling, but Lawrence pulls it off well.  This is a dark, brooding series full of characters nobody should be cheering for, but it works well.

Emperor of Thorns (Mark Lawrence)

With one crown already achieved, Jorg of Ancrath seeks the biggest crown of all – to become the new Emperor of what was once Europe.  Like the other books, this one follows multiple storylines separated by a number of years – Jorg’s procession, accompanied by his wife and, eventually, new son, to Vyene (Vienna) for the Congression that will choose the new emperor, his trips to Iberia (mostly a poisoned land from the Builders’ Suns of a millennium earlier) and Muslim Afrique five years prior, and the ongoing story of Chella, the necromancer who holds the key to Jorg’s life in some ways.  It’s a dark, violent, and bleak story of power and warfare and what it means to achieve your goal in order to sacrifice it for a larger cause.  The backstory of the Builders (i.e. us) intrudes more and more, and the damage they caused to Jorg’s world becomes central to the plot.  It was a well-written series, and worth the time.

The Management Style of the Supreme Beings (Tom Holt)

Tom Holt is slowly carving out a niche writing books that take a macroeconomic approach to myth and legend, and since I enjoyed The Outsourcerer’s Apprentice I figured I’d like this one as well.  And, indeed, I did.  It starts with a buyout of the right to be the gods of Earth, when two figures known as Dad and Jay (his son) decide that they’ve had enough and sell out to the Venturi Brothers, Ab and Snib.  The Venturis don’t believe in right and wrong.  They believe in capitalism and wealth and the right to do whatever you can afford to do.  Crime drops, productivity soars, all of Earth’s problems seem to end, and everyone is miserable.  Meanwhile Kevin – Jay’s lesser known brother – is walking around trying to do good, in flat violation of the contract of sale.  Uncle Nick’s realm of Flipside is left as an autonomous republic, with no new arrivals but the continuation of the old ones.  The human employees of both Dad and Uncle Nick – Lucy and Bernie, respectively – have to find new things to do.  An adventurer named Jersey Thorpe rattles around causing trouble.  And a former thunder god known as Father Christmas is throwing a large wrench into it all.  It’s a complex, oddball take on religion, morality, and economics, and it hums along nicely with a few laughs.  It’s not one of his best – the plot never quite gels and it wraps up rather abruptly – but even a lesser Holt novel is better than most of the things that are out there.

[A Book About My Old Museum] (The Current Assistant Director)

It’s kind of strange to read a book that has your own picture in it, but there it is.  For five years, between 2002 and 2007, I ran the museum that is the subject of this book.  They were tumultuous years, with my primary focus being a construction project designed to put up a new addition on the footprint of the part of the original structure that had fallen down more than half a century earlier.  And if you think doing a construction project on a National Historic Landmark using federal money filtered down through state and local agencies isn’t going to create enough bureaucracy to beggar the imagination, you can think again.  But it’s up, and the bureaucrat who most devoted his life to sabotaging that project has retired and gone to hell, I imagine.  This is one of those books that historical societies put out to sell in the gift shop, and it does a nice job of giving you the basic history of the place, the people who founded it, and the events that separate that founding from today.  It also has a whole pile of photographs, including my very favorite from my time there – a shot of the founder’s son sitting on a stump, c.1910, looking for all the world like he swallowed a bug.  It’s nice to have all those photos and stories in one place.

Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex (Mary Roach)

If there is any overriding lesson to be learned from this engaging and often laugh-out-loud funny survey of the science of human sexuality it is that those who engage in such research are a hardy and often persecuted breed.  Roach goes into great detail about the legal, cultural, and religious opposition those intrepid researchers have faced and, in many places including the US, still face, and in the end you can’t help but have a certain admiration for those brave researchers and their even braver subjects who spend their time advancing the frontiers of knowledge and their own sexual activities.  Roach has a dry, often subversive humor that delights in oddities and juxtapositions and she’s not afraid to become a subject if that’s what it takes to get the researchers to show her what they’re up to (her husband, she says, deserves a medal for being a good sport and occasional participant with her).  The science is sound though often cringeworthy – particularly her in-depth chapters on cures for erectile dysfunction, which often seem worse than the initial problem (hint: those of us who own one of those organs really don’t enjoy descriptions of penises that contain the word “degloving,” and you can look that up on your own, thank you very much).  For all that, however, it’s a breezy read, which is a testament to Roach’s writing skills.

Snow Crash (Neal Stephenson)

Hiro Protagonist – perhaps the greatest character name in all of literature – is a hacker, someone who makes his living on the ragged edge of computer programming.  He lives in a world where most of the institutions of society have broken down.  What was once the United States is pockmarked with franchise statelets, corporate rulers, and lawless enclaves, and while technically there is a federal government nobody pays it much attention.  When the book opens Hiro is a pizza delivery guy working for the Mafia, a prestigious and highly skilled position in a nation where the Mafia is completely above board if otherwise unchanged.  When a delivery goes wrong, he ends up in an odd alliance with Y.T., a 15-year-old girl who works as a Kourier, riding a high tech skateboard through the urban jungles of southern California to deliver whatever is asked.  Like the Mafia, Kouriers are a closed society with their own code of honor.  The plot spirals out to include a frighteningly efficient Aleut killer named Raven, a floating religious colony known as the Raft, Hiro’s ex-girlfriend Juanita, Sumerian mythology and the power of incantatory words, and what would now be referred to as an online world known as the Metaverse (the book, published in 1992, is one of the earliest cyberpunk novels of online worlds).  It centers on a visual virus – a pattern that can literally rewire the brains of those susceptible to it, leading to the Snow Crash of the title, a reference to any computer crash so severe that it destroys the ability of the computer to function and leaves only snow on the monitor.  And from there it gets strange.  Stephenson is a phenomenal writer who can pack a story with ideas, and while this one ends with the abruptness of a writer who seems to have gotten tired of the plot – there are more than a few loose ends, including, for example, the ultimate fate of Da5id, Hiro’s hacker colleague in the Metaverse – he does keep you entertained and engaged for the whole time.

Monty Python’s Tunisian Holiday: My Life With Brian, a Memoir (Kim “Howard” Johnson)

This book is what happens when rabid fans are allowed to interact with their idols.  Johnson was an Illinois teenager in the early 1970s when he stumbled into Monty Python’s Flying Circus on his local PBS station.  Entranced, he became their biggest and most persistent fan.  He started his own fanzine (it was the 70s, after all).  He wrote to them.  And they wrote back.  More amazingly, they invited him to see them if he ever went to London, and so he did.  Surprisingly enough, he managed to form friendships with his idols, so much so that when they went to Tunisia to film Life of Brian, Johnson flew over to join them and chronicle the filming.  As one might expect from this set-up, Johnson’s chronicle borders on hagiography, though with enough of a sense of paparazzi to keep it just this side of honest.  Johnson was an exhaustive recorder, one who seems not to have missed a conversation or an action, however small, and most of it ends up here.  On the other hand, he was genuinely fascinated by the Pythons and their assorted hangers on, he had incredible access to them all, and he ended up deeply involved in the film itself – he served as a still photographer, a gopher, and, like almost everyone else who was there, he ended up playing several different roles as an extra.  It’s an odd and compulsive book, unsettling in its fervid devotion but interesting for its good-hearted love of its subjects and for its deeply insider view of the behind-the-scenes story of one of the classic films of the late 20th century.  Having rewatched Life of Brian a couple of years ago it’s clear to me that the film really hasn’t held up as well as Holy Grail has – unless you are familiar with the infinitely fractal splintering of Marxist revolutionary groups in the 1970s, for example, a lot of the humor is lost – but it remains a monument to its time.  I actually listened to the audiobook version of this book as I drove back and forth to Philadelphia in September and I am never sure if that counts as a book being read, but it’s my blog and I suppose I can count it if I choose to do so.

Hitless Wonder: A Life in Minor League Rock and Roll (Joe Oestreich)

Like most college students, I played in a band.  It’s great fun and requires no particular talent.  We occasionally wondered what it would be like to pursue musical fame and fortune rather than our actual careers, but never seriously, at least not on my part.  Joe Oestriech took it seriously.  He and his friend Colin Gawel first formed a band in high school in Columbus OH, a band that eventually morphed into Watershed.  At the end of their junior year at Ohio State they dropped out and went all-in for the band, and they almost made it.  They had a couple of popular songs – not hits, precisely, but songs that got regional and perhaps even national airplay for a time, and they were especially popular in Wisconsin (even if I never heard of them) – and they were signed by a major label for an agonizingly brief period in the 90s.  But that’s as far as they got.  This book is a memoir of a band that almost but not quite made it big, and it follows two tracks.  There’s a present-day track from about 2010 or so (the book was published in 2012, so it wasn’t all that long before that) as Watershed goes on a final three-week tour to see if there’s any point to it all for a bunch of late-30-something rockers with wives and day jobs (Oestreich, by this time, is working as a creative writing professor at a university in Tacoma – which, happily, means that the book is engagingly written).  And there’s a memory track, which follows the creation and life of the band – its ups and down scrabbling to hit The Pros.  Both tracks are full of interesting characters (Biggie, their devoted manager/roadie/van driver; Superfans I and II, the closest to groupies they have; any number of bartenders who make their lives more pleasant and record execs who don’t; Oestriech’s wife Kate, whom he started dating when he was a college junior and she was a high school sophomore; and so on) and well-told stories, and if by the time we get to the end there is little doubt as to where the band will end up it is still a fun ride while it lasts.  Rock and roll isn’t dead – it’s just hiding in bars.

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