Book Thread

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

  1. shootER

    shootER Insubordinate...and churlish Administrator

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    Just finished Tommy: The British Soldier on the Western Front 1914-1918 by Richard Holmes.

    A really interesting read and what I liked most about it is the storytelling structure. Holmes basically devotes the first part of the book to a complete history of the war on the Western Front, then dives into the particulars of just who "Tommy" was for the rest of it. Everything from the social makeup of the army to details of weapons, tactics, and other background information. Highly recommended and I'm really looking forward to reading the next book I bought by him:
    Redcoat: The British Soldier in the Age of Horse and Musket

    Currently reading
    Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the U. S. Navy by Ian W. Toll, which so far is even more fascinating than the Holmes book.
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  2. RickDeckard

    RickDeckard Socialist

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    Amongst Women by John McGahern

    This is the best known book of one of the giants of recent Irish literature - the story of an ageing Irish farmer living in the mid 20th century, veteran of the war of Independence. The story is told primarily through the lens of his relationship with his wife and daughters, though he also has two sons.
    There is much here that speaks to the society that was created in post-colonial Ireland. The ideals espoused by Eamon deValera were of an idyllic pastoral existence, the reality of which is portrayed here as an austere patriarchy, culturally, sexually and emotionally retarded and held together mainly by the ritual power of religion. Emigration is seen as the only escape.
    There's not much plot. These are ordinary lives, beautifully yet simply rendered. The characters are fascinating and well drawn, particularly Moran. Not a bad man, but he can be terrifying and unyielding to the point of destroying those around him. Masterful.
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  3. NAHTMMM

    NAHTMMM GLORIAAA!!

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    The Map That Changed The World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology - Simon Winchester

    KJ picked this up for me at a library sale. It is what it says: a popular* biography of William Smith, a surveyor with a passion for rocks who, from his years of experience in the field, developed a map of the crust beneath Britain and published it, inventing a new science in the process and starting a tide that would overturn Bishop Whomever's notion that the Earth was only a few thousand years old (I had no idea that was as widely accepted as it evidently was). Thanks to his lowly ancestry, a few bad financial choices, and bad luck, it didn't secure him much acclaim until late in life. He even spent a short time in debtor's prison. The book feels like it could have been a bit meatier somehow(?), and the author suffers an attack of colons about midway through, but it's a good and informative read.

    * The author says a more serious bio was coming out soon


    Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - Roald Dahl

    If I've read this before, I don't remember a single detail, so it counts as a new read. The first few pages took me off guard as to how talk-downy they were, but it's all the sort of wacky inventiveness I expect from Dahl. I was surprised that the Oompa-Loompas sing in the book, too (though not the movie songs). Very fast-paced due to telling much of the story through dialogue, and of course being a children's book. A few good bits that didn't turn up in the movie. My third grade teacher didn't approve of how the original movie changed the book, but I think it was a very faithful adaptation by Hollywood standards.
  4. matthunter

    matthunter Antira

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    It's weird - I know I read the book, but my mind glosses over it due to the movie AND the fact that I much preferred Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator because it involved space travel, the Knids and the elevator itself reminded me of the TARDIS although sans the bigger on the inside.
  5. NAHTMMM

    NAHTMMM GLORIAAA!!

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    I really feel like pretty much all the best bits wound up in the movie in some way or another, and then Gene Wilder turned the character of Willy Wonka up a couple of notches.


    Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials that Shape Our Man-Made World - Mark Miodownik

    Mr. Mark Miodownik is a professor of materials science and society, and it turns out that's an excellent background for writing a popular science book about the materials we take for granted (or may soon embrace) in modern civilization: steel, various carbons, chocolate, and six other materials plus a chapter on the expanding world of biomaterials. Miodownik clearly and simply describes how these materials are found or made, what gives them their properties that make them so essential, and their role in society now and through the ages. There's a lot of talk of crystals, for example, without digressions into vectors or the subvarieties of lattice structures. A very good read if you want to appreciate materials science more.
  6. RickDeckard

    RickDeckard Socialist

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    The Emperors New Mind by Roger Penrose

    Ostensibly a discussion of how consciousness arises, Penrose takes a circuitous route via first a discussion of AI, then computational theory, mathematical philosophy, general relativity and quantum physics, before tying things up by moving back to consciousness.
    The journey is more enlightening than the conclusion. Penrose asks a lot of the reader, going way beyond the standard pop science by working through the technicalities and the math in some detail. If you can follow (and at times it's a struggle) it is worth it as the concepts being thrown around are fairly awesome. I particularly enjoyed his ruminations on neo-Platonism versus formalism in mathematics and his illumination of the concept of wave-function collapse in quantum physics. His idea to resolve this which involves giving general relativity primacy over quantum theory is unusual but interesting.
    One could compare Penrose's ideas on consciousness to Hofstadter's in Godel, Escher, Bach. I think Penrose comes out on the wrong side of such a comparison. While his ideas remain stimulating, they are so speculative as to approach the mystical - which is a little disappointing given the very high bar he had set earlier in the book for scientific rigor.
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  7. RickDeckard

    RickDeckard Socialist

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    Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea by Charles Seife

    This is a short microhistory of the number "zero", about which there is more to say than you might think. In ancient times, zero was not part of most numbering systems, being regarded as a placeholder at best. This made even basic arithmetic quite difficult and it was only in the middle ages that the western world began to adopt it after it became more prominent in the east.
    Zero is actually the twin of infinity, and it's with that concept that the book gets most mileage - explaining how Zeno's Paradox was finally resolved by the adoption of calculus and moving on to set theory and then to the physics of singularities and vacuum energy. It is probably guilty of what most microhistories are - of trying to see all of this stuff through a very narrow lense. Eventually it ends up covering much of the history of mathematics and physics - no bad thing, but it has been done more extensively elsewhere.
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  8. NAHTMMM

    NAHTMMM GLORIAAA!!

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    The Book of Lost Tales Part Two - Tolkien (Tolkien ed.)

    It amuses me how Tolkien's Middle-Earth works descend (ascend, if you like), in order of publishing, from modern casual language toward pre-KJV formality. Anyway. This is basically part two of a series of stories from Tolkien's early days of inventing his mythology, framed as being told to Eriol the traveller by Elves on the island of Tol Eressea. The big draws for me are the expansion relative to The Silmarillion of the tales of Tinuviel and Beren and the fall of Gondolin, and Eriol's story itself.

    The first story runs along much the same lines as in The Silmarillion, but Tinuviel is not Luthien yet, there are giant powerful magical cats instead of a vampire, and Sauron has not yet been conceived of. Also Beren is an elf. Sorry, Gnome. This is really early in the process, where elves are faeries and gnomes, and not having read Part I (I think I bounced off it in elementary school) the tales seem not yet connected firmly by a clear conception of the history of the Silmarils running through them.

    The fall of Gondolin has a lot more detail as well, particularly about the battle.

    Eriol's story is mainly interesting in that it shows Tolkien trying, as he once said, to make this a uniquely English mythology. Tol Eressea is explicitly torn apart to become Great Britain (referred to as Luthany and one of its inhabitants Luthien) and Ireland, the "faeries" fade and diminish explicitly as a result of humanity flourishing, and their fading explicitly takes the form of shrinking and becoming invisible to most humans, through each succeeding historical invasion of England, to reach the modern day situation, with the traditional English concept of elves/fairies being tiny beings that surely nobody believes in anymore.

    Turin Turambar has differences, but no memorable additions for my money. Not my favorite anyway. ;) Earendel lacks the "bargaining for mercy with a Silmaril" motivation -- he sails either to seek his father or because Ulmo thinks it's a good idea -- but several versions of a poem are included.

    Christopher Tolkien does a fine job of pointing out the salient points of each version of each tale, and exploring the evolution of names.
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  9. NAHTMMM

    NAHTMMM GLORIAAA!!

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    This is now a Netflix movie directed by Chiwetel Ejiofor and has at least one good review: https://moviebabblereviews.com/2019/03/14/film-review-the-boy-who-harnessed-the-wind-2019-video/
  10. NAHTMMM

    NAHTMMM GLORIAAA!!

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    Parting the Desert: The Creation of the Suez Canal - Zachary Karabell

    This book largely focuses on politics, biography, and the dynamics between Europe and the "Orient" as it follows the Suez Canal from idea to reality, from Leibniz trying to distract Louis XIV from Europe with a grand vision of conquering Egypt instead, to Napoleon's invasion of Egypt, to Enfantin and the Saint-Simonians' blend of philosophy and industrialization, and then to the man who made it happen: Ferdinand Lesseps and his tireless ambition against whelming odds. The relevant viceroys of Egypt are also given substantial attention: Muhammad Ali, Said, Abbas, and Ismail, with particular attention to their attempts to imitate Europe without becoming subservient to that continent's powers, as well as their financial mistakes that eventually doomed the latter desire. Said in particular expected too much for too long from the cotton industry he cultivated during the American Civil War.

    I would have preferred more details about the engineering difficulties of the canal. I would also have preferred a better, sharper flow to the prose and a better sense of dates, as the author sometimes (for example) hops around with peeks at future consequences and such and then hops right back to a bit farther along in what he was talking about. Transitional phrases are our friends. But clearly this is a fascinating topic, with good detail as far as the author goes. I just don't feel the material was done justice.
  11. Elwood

    Elwood I know what I'm about, son.

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    I fell in love with that book back in 2012. I purchased the hard cover edition for one of my mentees for Christmas '18 and she loved it.

    I just finished Expository Apologetics: Answering Objections with the Power of the Word by Dr. Voddie Baucham Jr.

    It's an absolute must read for any student of theology that wants to engage with the modern world.

    Tonight I'm starting Reclaiming Glory: Creating a Gospel Legacy throughout North America by Mark Clifton

    Eh, it's for a class I'm taking. :marathon: But, after that, I'm going to put on my big boy pants and finally dive into:

    Institutes of the Christian Religion by John Calvin.
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  12. RickDeckard

    RickDeckard Socialist

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    The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells

    "It's much, much worse than you think" begins probably be the most horrifying book I have ever read, certainly of the non-fiction variety. Wallace-Wells spells out in detail, the range of scenarios likely to arise from global warming, from best to worst case. These include sea level rises, heatwaves, famines, mass extinctions, lack of freshwater and various other disasters. Even if we do meet the targets that have been set at an international level - which we are currently failing miserably at - things will be very bad indeed, and we can expect something worse than the Great Depression persisting over a long timescale. If we continue to accelerate our use of fossil feuls and depending on the various poorly understood feedback loops that we could be unleashing, we are potentially looking at several degrees of warming and therefore a civilisation-ending catastrophe. Human life would likely adapt in some format, but it will be in a diminished way. The planet will be altered for millions of years.
    The author accepts the charge of alarmism and notes that he is alarmed, as we all should be. He examines cultural attitudes to the problem and why our cognitive biases allow us to ignore, deny or downplay climate change. Potential solutions are examined, from carbon capture to geoengineering, but they are wildly expensive and would require a mobilization on a scale that it is difficult to imagine.
    The most depressing part is that much of the damage has been done in the last generation - since we've known about this problem. Had we decided to do something about it at that point, it would have been manageable albeit with some effort. Now I fear that future generations will look back at us with ignominy.
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  13. Paladin

    Paladin Overjoyed Man of Liberty

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    If it's meant to be, I'll read that one eventually.










    :diacanu:

    I don't too much reading lately, but I've gotten onto audio books since I spend about an hour a day commuting.

    I've listened to The Horse, The Wheel, and Language by David Anthony, which is a fascinating--if somewhat overwhelming--exploration of the geographic and cultural origins of the Indo-European languages. Read the dead-tree edition 8 or so years ago.

    I just finished Ten Caesars by Barry Strauss, a profile of ten very important Roman emperors. Didn't cover a whole lotta new ground for me, but helps me put some of the story between Nero and Constantine in order.

    I'm currently listening to Dune, Frank Herbert's sci-fi classic. Read it before, seen a couple of different film versions of it. Am really digging just how vast and influential it is. I'm seeing lots of Star Wars in it.
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  14. NAHTMMM

    NAHTMMM GLORIAAA!!

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    The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America's Childhood -- Jane Leavy

    This is not a happy book. Mantle spends little time being a hero on the field and a lot of time getting injured, getting drunk, being offensive to everyone he meets, being depressed, thinking nobody could ever love him, and cheating on his wife with half the female population of America. After losing his father early to mining sickness, his lack of self-esteem and expectation of a short life lets him destroy himself however he wants. One alternates feeling sorry as the tragedy unfolds -- not his fault he's an alcoholic, etc., and then at the end the author mentions his sexual abuse as a child -- and feeling disgusted with Mantle's lack of basic decency toward others. Toward the end of his life he learns to put up a celebrity facade, and after he goes into the Betty Ford Clinic he seems to have put his head on nearly straight, straight enough to be able to spend time with his children and even tell them he loves them, but by then his liver damage was too enormous, and his sons had been mostly wrecked as well.

    But this isn't written as a hit piece, and Mantle's personal problems aren't the only focus. The author spends a whole chapter reconstructing the first "tape measure" home run and tracking down the young boy who found where it came to rest. There's also a subcurrent of looking at conflicting accounts, such as over Mutt's baseball ability or a particular dust-up in a night club or just how far that tape-measure homer traveled. And then the author relates the time she tried to interview a drunken Mantle, only to be hit on and pawed before he passed out.

    A fun appendix uses kinesiology to analyze Mantle's swing (verdict: it was super modern but put an awful lot of stress on one knee).

    The list of interviewees alone goes on for pages. This is a very well-written, well-researched book that offers insights and observations but leaves the reader to decide what one thinks about the man.
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  15. Damar

    Damar Liberal Elitist

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    I'll have to read that one. Whenever I hear someone getting all self righteous saying Pete Rose has no place in the Hall of Fame I remind them that Mickey Mantle was an all around horrible person. Good times.
  16. Minsc&Boo

    Minsc&Boo Fresh Meat

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    Dune
    Game of thrones
    Witcher darker then game of throne books. Got race riots old school ghettos human discrimination toward non humans pogroms and genocide push them toward terrorist groups;.
  17. RickDeckard

    RickDeckard Socialist

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    Middlemarch by George Elliot

    This took me a while to get through, both because of its length and a lack of time for reading lately. It comes with a big reputation, held by many to be the greatest novel ever written in the English language, and thus it was one that I needed to tick off the list.
    Written in 1871, but set decades earlier, it addresses many issues of the time - the Great Reform Act (which expanded the franchise in England), the position of women, religious toleration, the coming of the railways, progress in medicine and others. This it does through the lives of the denizens of the fictional town of Middlemarch - among them Dorothea (who takes the questionable decision to marry an older scholar), Lydgate (a doctor with some new ideas), Bulstrode (a self-righteous banker) and Fred Vincy (a tearaway youth).
    Less didactic than Dickens, it compares favourably in terms of how well it draws its characters. There is a large cast here, each one of them three dimensional and believable. Where it is somewhat limited is in the manner of its plot - in that it meanders through important incidents in the lives of its characters without having an overarching story. Representative of life perhaps - your mileage may vary.
    In terms of 19th century realism, it certainly stands beside other fine examples - War and Peace, Huckleberry Finn and so forth. I won't say that it's the best, and it can suffer at times from some of the tropes that arguably led to modernist writing - an abundancy of detail, a narrator that knows just too much - but in its best moments it reveals a pathos that evokes heartbreak, joy and anger. And it's simple message - that goodness and decency in ordinary people makes the world a world a better place - is not to be breezed over and is something that we could do with rediscovering.
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  18. NAHTMMM

    NAHTMMM GLORIAAA!!

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    Anne Perry -- Death on Blackheath

    Nahtmmm walked into his tiny local library in search of a mystery novel. He noticed yet again how tiny the building was. He felt the need to spend three paragraphs of uninteresting prose thinking about details concerning the library's history that held no interest for the reader and no relevance to the book he might purchase. He was hoping for a mystery, though as mentioned twice already in the previous paragraphs he knew full well that the library's genre selection was just about nonexistent. Such were the disadvantages of a tiny library that was tiny.

    Scanning the stacks, he came across several hardcovers with serious murder titles and ANNE PERRY in large letters at the tops. This seemed promising. Perhaps this would be a new mystery series to read through, he thought. Nahtmmm was interested in finding a new mystery series to read. He flipped to the titles page and found that this Anne Perry had written over twenty mysteries, split between two detective teams, set in Victorian times. This sounded promising indeed for one with his reading preferences. This seems like a promising author, he thought, for my reading preferences. And then he thought three paragraphs of information about his mystery reading habits that could have been summed up in a couple of sentences, with better style and less tedium as a result.

    Meanwhile, across the state, KatyJane found herself musing upon the exact same details about the library as already mentioned, without any variation that might at least provide insight into her character.

    As Nahtmmm read through his selection, Death on Blackheath, he found himself involved in the plot but perplexed by the content. How could someone write so many novels and still have such unimpressive prose? Surely she could trust her readers by now to follow the plot without every character repeating the details over and over again every few chapters? How could she write such meticulous play-by-plays of her characters' thoughts and conversations, and yet they felt so less than fully formed?

    KatyJane chatted with her mother over dinner, and conversation naturally turned to the library, with each of them repeating the exact same points of "interest" that had been covered already.

    Further, the characters were generally unimpressive. Watching detective work try to function on Victorian forensics was quite a thing -- no "she died between 11 and 11:30 last night" here -- but any attempt at deduction usually consisted of bewildered repetition of the questions to be answered, and then a shrug and leaving it until the next plot event.

    The family drama was fine, the plot was fine, the bodies were gruesome without being exploitatively so, the romance was nice, but there's just so much fat on this thing. The dress descriptions were the only brief anythings in this book. Agatha Christie could have written basically the same book in half the space, and properly dazzled the reader with a full appreciation of all the possible explanations into the bargain. Several times I wondered "Why doesn't anyone wonder if X is true?" and it wasn't because the author was saving that as the twist reveal, it was because it just didn't occur to the author. Even when X was a logical supposition to draw from the details the author kept repeating.

    There were nice touches here and there, but not an author I wish to revisit. This does raise the number of "detective stories involving submarine plans" I've read to three. Or four, if Christie's rewrite also involved submarines.
  19. RickDeckard

    RickDeckard Socialist

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    India Conquered: Britain's Raj and The Passions of Empire by Jon Wilson.

    Addressing another gap in my history knowledge here, this is a history of the British Empire in India.
    It presents itself as a corrective to the establishment narrative of the Raj as an efficient operation with a civilising mission. It's unsurprising that I agree with its stance. Prior to British involvement India was a pre-industrial but prosperous trading society with a highly complex but decentralised political system. The British (via the East India Company) initially sought to trade but quickly became embroiled in local politics, first taking control of small outposts and later spurred by the collapse of the Mughal Empire, taking control over larger swathes of territory in order to guarantee their revenues. The impact on Indian society was horrific as its domestic textile and ship-building industries were crushed, the people reduced to abject poverty, repeated famines killing millions at a time, rebellion in 1857 leading to merciless bloodbaths in reprisal and the economy oriented towards resource extraction.
    Not really the fault of the author, but my prior knowledge was patchy and there seems to be a presumption of some familiarity with other points of view with which I struggled. I found the idea expressed throughout that British power was always tentative difficult to reconcile with the enormous impact that they had. And despite everything, this is still overwhelmingly focused on the conquerors - there's little on the pre-British history of India and the caste system is mentioned several times but never explained. All of the catastrophic results of imperialism are listed but no over-arching big picture presented. These are as much my issues as issues in the text though. I find myself reading news from the subcontinent over the past few days with a deeper understanding of the historical processes involved.

    As a postcript, I found the treatment of Gandhi's role in the independence movement interesting - this is no addition to the hagiographies that proliferate about the man. His lauded commitment to non-violence and to Indian independence are much more murky than one might otherwise be led to believe. He was essentially a recruiting sargeant for the British during World War I and whilst he led spectacular campaigns against them after that, these weren't necessarily with the goal of independence in mind and he was frequently aligned with them, promoting obscurantist religious practices above real political action. Possibly his greatest achievement was the unifying effect that his being shot dead had, helping to bring an end to the dreadful violence unleashed by the partition of India.
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  20. Lanzman

    Lanzman Vast, Cool and Unsympathetic Formerly Important

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    Riding the Elephant by Craig Ferguson

    The former late night television host presents a series of anecdotes and reflections on his lessons learned thru life. I personally find Ferguson a fascinating person and think he’s the best interview show host TV has ever had. His writing style is clear and engaging. A fairly quick read.
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  21. NAHTMMM

    NAHTMMM GLORIAAA!!

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    Robert L. O'Connell - The Ghosts of Cannae: Hannibal and the Darkest Hour of the Roman Republic

    This is mainly a history of the Second Punic War between Rome and Carthage, with stress on the roles of Hannibal and the ghosts, and the future that was foreshadowed by the latter. It starts off by reviewing the available sources of information (Polybius is foremost) and analyzing their reliability, which may sound tedious but it's only a few pages and is a very welcome grounding. Other than the ancient literature, we have no evidence that Hannibal even did anything in Europe, aside from a fragment of a stone tablet. All that war, erased by time.

    Anyway, the author brings us up through the psychological and practical history of warfare to the Romans, to spend some time on how they waged war on the battlefield and in their mind (reading Homer had made them obsessed with glory from individual combat, even though they fought in formations). And the Carthaginians, who were more interested in wealth. Mediterranean politics are also important to the story, notably since one of the author's eventual points is that Punic II sowed the seeds for the end of the Roman republic. This all feels well-explained.

    The first and third Punic wars are briefly gone over in their appropriate place, but again, much of the bulk is about the Second Punic War, with the focus first on Hannibal and family and his drive from Iberia to Cannae,where he totally wrecked a Roman mega-army and killed a good chunk of the Senate, and from there to being walled off in southern Italy as new tactics and Scipio Africanus took the war in hand for Rome.

    The ghosts are the legiones Cannenses, those who survived Cannae and were banished from Roman society as cowards. Scipio Africanus, many years later, would pick them up and give them a chance to redeem themselves, eventually defeating Hannibal at Zama (which of four Zamas, we don't know).

    The author eventually argues that Hannibal was a cause of the republic ending in two ways: first, by forcing Rome to change its army command from "whoever's popular gets a turn" to "whoever's brilliant enough to beat Hannibal stays in command until the thing is done." Those in charge could no longer be considered interchangable. Second, the legiones were rejected by Rome, even after Zama, but redeemed by Scipio, setting the pattern for an army more faithful to its commander than to the state.

    Cannae itself was minimized over the centuries, probably because it was embarrassing to the winners writing the history books. But it became a fad in the 20th century, notably among Germans but also cited by Eisenhower and Schwarzkopf.

    I feel like I understand the history behind all the factions in Imperial Conquest much better now. [​IMG]

    This is the first time I've ever seen a footnote consisting of an apology to Mel Blanc.
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  22. RickDeckard

    RickDeckard Socialist

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    The Order of Time by Carlo Rovelli

    Carlo Rovelli is one of the foremost advocates of loop quantum gravity, the main competitor to string theory in the attempt to unify general relativity with quantum physics. This book is his attempt to grapple with the nature of time, many of his insights having coming from his work in that area. It's mind-bending and mind-expanding.
    Rovelli starts out by deconstructing our everyday perception of what time is. It passes differently at different locations, the concept of the "present" is not coherent and - this is the most arresting fact in the book - does not appear to have a direction. Fundamental physical laws (to the extent that we understand them) operate just as easily from future to past as past to future. The only exception is the second law of thermodynamics, which demands that entropy increases but this is more of a statistical anomaly arising from he fact that entropy is low in the past, begging the question as to why that is.
    The conclusion then is that time as we experience it is an emergent phenomenon. Rovelli suggests that the world consists not of things but of events and that time is what arises (locally) when those events are put in order. The one way flow of entropy demands that information can only travel in one direction, and thus that creatures like us therefore percieve things flowing in this direction.
    Further speculations were on less firm footing, I thought - including the idea that entropy only appears to be increasing from our perspective, and the impact that quantum indeterminacy has on the mind. If I have a criticism it is that sometimes the language available to describe the staggering concepts in play just isn't available.
    Rovelli becomes increasingly poetic and personal towards the end, leaning on figures from Augustine to Faust to ground his thoughts. And it's intriguing that some of the intuitions displayed by the ancients on these questions now seem to be more on the money than those of more modern thinkers.
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  23. Minsc&Boo

    Minsc&Boo Fresh Meat

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    Rick did your ead the witcher series at all too? Holocaust allegory, race riots and old school European ghettos. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Witcher they've been translated to English. Netflix is turning it into a series.
  24. NAHTMMM

    NAHTMMM GLORIAAA!!

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    I Rode With Stonewall: Being chiefly the war experiences of the youngest member of Jackson's staff from the John Brown raid to the hanging of Mrs. Surratt - Henry Kyd Douglas

    What the subtitle says -- Douglas, who grew up on a Virginia farm, recounts his experiences, starting with John Brown being a weirdo that nobody in town liked, heading out to St. Louis to be a lawyer, coming back to defend old Virginny when war started brewing, and landing in Jackson's command right there starting at Bull Run. He soon became part of Jackson's staff and remained that way most of the way up until Chancellorsville, where Stonewall was mortally wounded by his own side. Douglas was later wounded and captured at Gettysburg, spent a few months in prison before being released, and rejoined the Army of Northern Virginia in time for Grant's endgame. After the war he was imprisoned for doubtful reasons and testified before a commission looking to blame the Confederate army for Lincoln's assassination, in which role he was an eyewitness of Mrs. Surratt being wrongly convicted.

    Douglas kept a diary during the war, then after it seems to have written numerous articles for newspapers. He also wrote a first draft in those early years, but for whatever reason did not publish. This book is the product of a later, more mellow Douglas who has those records at his disposal, a man who goes out of his way to compliment not just Stonewall but nearly every other man and woman he mentions. He seems to dislike nobody except Secretary Stanton and David Hunter, giving ample evidence for the latter. The prose is old-fashioned in a good way, a very readable narration that sticks to the facts in a military sort of way. He occasionally criticizes military strategy but rarely the strategist. Anecdotes and brief overviews are common, but there is little attempt to describe being in any given battle.

    Besides army action, Douglas covers his life as a prisoner of war (treated well by people, not by the weather), the Surratt trial, and his family's sufferings. The most philosophical he gets is mentioning that he had always considered slavery a 'curse on the middle states'. There are a few editorial endnotes correcting factual errors. It's not a first book to read about the Civil War, but if you know the names of all the major players and events, then a very good read.
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  25. NAHTMMM

    NAHTMMM GLORIAAA!!

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    I, Robot - Isaac Asimov

    A series of short stories about positronic robots using an interview with a "robopsychologist" as the framing device. Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics feature heavily in each story. There is some sense of the greater implications for society in the background each time -- robots in this or that job, people resenting robots -- but in each case the actual story is about a few individuals dealing with a single robot who perhaps isn't doing what they want it to.

    It's a good, quick read, with plenty of energy in the dialogue and plots. I find it interesting that there is a presumption that, to get such intelligent machines, the brains must have personalities even while being strictly governed by logic. On one hand, there would be no "robopsychology" without this, and therefore the stories would be far less interesting. On the other, if this was a prevalent belief at the time Asimov wrote the stories (1940-1950), or if the stories popularized that assumption, that would help explain all the paranoid stories of computers exceeding their programming and actively wanting to conquer the world or wipe out humanity or the like.
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  26. RickDeckard

    RickDeckard Socialist

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    The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

    Set in a near-future dystopian version of New England which has descended into a mixture of Saudi Arabia and East Germany where women are treated as slaves, this is the story of Offred, a Handmaid who is used as breeding material for an elite in the new society. The story is told very much from her point of view, cutting between flashbacks of how this situation arose, her indoctrination and the present day. That leaves the reader very much inside her head - ignorant about some things, including many of the character motivations - and effectively creates some sense of disorientation.
    It's obviously a warning about the rise of the religious right in the US, but I didn't find the idea that this could happen so quickly to be credible. Still a decent read.
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  27. RickDeckard

    RickDeckard Socialist

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    The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin

    A strange one this - a short novel presenting itself as the testament of Mary, mother of Jesus set several years after his death. It was highly applauded when it was released a few years back, significantly attracting the opprobrium of the Roman Catholic Church so naturally it interested me.
    As an emotive account of a mother grieving for her son it works very well. But I'm not clear what the point is. It's mostly ambiguous on whether Jesus had any supernatural powers (though there are certainly implications that these are fakery) so is unlikely to appeal to any form of believer. It contains several historical contrivances and anachronisms so it can't possibly be an attempt to reconstruct a plausible history. Maybe there's something more meta going on here with Mary representing motherhood in general or Toibin commenting on the failure of any narrative to properly capture truth.
  28. RickDeckard

    RickDeckard Socialist

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    Farewell to Reality: How Modern Physics Has Betrayed the Search for Scientific Truth by Jim Baggott

    Another book about theoretical physics, but this one is essentially a criticism of many of the others I'd been reading. (see Brian Greene & Max Tegmark.) Baggott turns his fire on many of the speculative ideas at the forefront of modern physics - from string theory to the multiverse to the holographic principle - and asserts that they are not scientific since they make no testable predictions. Even when results from the LHC undermine supersymmetry - upon which the ideas of String Theory is based - it seems to have little effect.
    It's probably a necessary interjection, since a lot of this stuff is advanced too confidently, even if it's as much a criticism about how it is marketed as the substance.
    Strangely there is no reference to loop quantum gravity, which Baggott is an advocate of and which arguably suffers from some of the same flaws. And a final chapter touching on intelligent design seems out of place. But the fact that this arises at all probably speaks to the fact that the "low hanging fruit" has at this stage all been picked, and that theorists are in a corner with little idea how to proceed. Baggott's answer to the mysteries that remain that "we don't know" is fair, and will make it all the more satisfying if we ever do.
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  29. RickDeckard

    RickDeckard Socialist

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    Child of God by Cormac McCarthy

    This is one of Cormac McCarthy's early works.
    Not as polished as what are (in my view) his later masterpieces it nonetheless demonstrates something of the same efficient, arresting prose. It tells the story of Lester Ballard, an outcast from society in the American South some time in the 20th century whose increasing isolation from civilised society is mirrored by increasingly grisly crimes. These include murder and necropholia so this is not for the faint of heart - yet McCarthy nonetheless attempts to evoke sympathy for the beleaguered Ballard, mooting essentially that by marginalising him society has made him this way. Astonishingly, he at least partially succeeds, making this novel at once horrifying and very sad.
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  30. NAHTMMM

    NAHTMMM GLORIAAA!!

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    Tolkien and Tolkien - The Lost Road and Other Writings

    Another installment in the behind-the-scenes look at JRR's lifelong development of Middle-earth. The headliner is the first few chapters of an abandoned novel, in which various people across time are connected, via names and dreams, to a man and his son on the doomed island of Numenor. This was written during the early days, so the desire to connect to present-day is still strong, but the idea of elves and a rebellion against the gods of the West are already present. Also the modern-day son is very interested in linguistics so there's some autobiographical ideas in there :D

    Next are timelines of events in Valinor and then Beleriand that include details I haven't seen before. Also the Lhammas where Tolkien talks about how all the languages changed and spread as the races divided or met.

    The book in general tries to focus on the mythology as it stood at the beginning of writing LotR. This adds interesting details, but also not so much new stuff that I haven't seen in the Silmarillion or other behind-the-scenes books, in parts I haven't mentioned. Christopher Tolkien does add a few significant bits that, with hindsight or the discovery of new documents, he shouldn't have left out of The Silmarillion.

    The other star of the show comes at the end, the Elvish "dictionary" that Tolkien wrote out for his own reference. Most of the entries are evidently written no later than FotR. It's not really a dictionary as we would think of it, but a list of word stems that Tolkien would draw upon to build words and names --- and, often as not, change consonants as he went along, switching between voiced and unvoiced sounds or seemingly just throwing in letters for the heck of it. Christopher Tolkien explains that his father seemed more interested in the development of languages over time than he was in having a clear-cut, definitive dictionary . . . and, in point of evidence, apparently there was a third Elvish language, Noldorin, that drifted apart from Qenya in Valinor and then kinda got smushed into the existing Sindarin when the Noldor returned to Middle-Earth.

    One of the little bits about reading Tolkien's Middle-earth works that adds to the world-building is recognizing bits of words that pop up in different contexts. Seeing mith in both Mithrandir and mithril, for example. So I think building from stems was a very rewarding path for author and reader alike. Anyway, I sort of intensely skimmed the dictionary, as it's time to get the book back to the library, but the meanings of a lot of names are in there. As are some Elvish numbers up to twelve. :Oooo:

    One interesting bit is that the words for north and south contain the stems for right and left, respectively, implying the speaker is facing west, toward Valinor. Also, elves love trees, and two stems almost the same as the tree stem mean thrive and joy. As a Redwall fan, it amused me that Kot- means strive, quarrel. And the other acronym I considered, way back when picking my main internet name, is arguably in there, too, with a pleasing meaning. :naht:
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