Book Thread 2023

I enjoyed Mike Duncan’s The Storm Before the Storm: The Beginning of the End of the Roman Republic, which I listened to in 2021. It’s kind of crazy just how much detail he could get into thanks to all the written sources that still survive (I’m assuming). As in, this person left the Senate that day, but instead of heading towards his house, he went to this place instead. That kind of detail, down to each day’s happenstance. I’ve been reading a lot of history lately, and none of the other historical periods I’ve been reading about ever get down to that granular a level. Even Mike Duncan’s next book, which I listened to last year, about the American and French Revolutions from the perspective of the Maquiis de La Fayette, sometimes didn’t get into as much detail as the Roman history did in Storm before the Storm.

We do have some pretty amazing first-hand accounts from the late Roman Republic, especially Cicero’s letters and Caesar himself, but that level of detail sounds extremely suspect. I wouldn’t guarantee that there might not be one of Cicero’s letters where some little detail like that might appear as an aside, but it is generally quite unusual for the first-hand sources to be concerned with that kind of stuff. And if the details are taken from Appian or Plutarch, we’re dealing with writers who lived more than 100 years after the events (i.e., they are fairly unlikely to have had much better knowledge of this than you or I).

“Drawing parallels to modern day America” is kind of a red-flag for me and gives me serious Tom Holland vibes. The problem with the latter’s works is that they are mostly a distillation of the primary sources, ignoring extensive the critical scholarship of those sources and the significant archeological, numismatic, and other evidence that both adds (and subtracts) from them. Caesar, Cicero, Appian, Sallust, Plutarch et al are all fascinating writers (and honestly, I’d suggest reading their originals over their modern summarizers any day - they’re good) but one should never forget that for the most part, they were writing for a specific audience and with a specific agenda.

For a really fascinating work on the late Republic, I’d recommend Erich S. Gruen’s “The Last Generation of the Roman Republic” (1974). Not the most approachable book, but it’s a seminal work that effectively demolishes the idea that you can make comparisons between the Roman Republic and any modern state. The core of Gruen’s argument is that politics in the last half-century of the Roman Republic was pretty much business-as-usual, that the political institutions remained strong, and that nobody really anticipated the break-down of the Republic until Caesar and Pompey essentially kicked off an 18 year long “World War”. It leans a bit too heavily into the “business as usual” argument, but effectively demolishes so many of the myths that still live today outside of academic circles, such as, e.g., the entire ridiculous notion of Roman party politics (politics was massively individual), the “Caesar was afraid of prosecution and therefore marched on Rome” claim, the idea of Crassus as “Mr Money Bags” in the triumvirate, or the idea that the Triumvirate was some kind of invincible political alliance that had it all their way.

For a short and sweet starter on this period reflecting current scholarship, I’d suggest David Shotter’s “The Fall of the Roman Republic”, though I’d strongly suggest borrowing over buying (the cost of it is ridiculous).

Sorry if this is more detail than people are looking for, but Republican Roman history is my catnip.

Well, I finished Centers of Gravity, the eighth (and final?) installment of Marko Kloos’ Frontlines series. The tldr is that if you liked the earlier books, you will like this one as well. It doesn’t do much to break from the formula, but it is a very fitting conclusion to the narrator’s character arc, and leaves the setting in a satisfying place, though there are still plenty of unknowns. It reads to me as if Kloos is done with this story arc (and character), but wants to leave open the possibility of returning to it. And I really hope he does–it is better (IMHO) than his other series, and I would like to see some of the consequences of the last two books play out further. But I respect that the man churned out eight books (albeit on the shorter side, and definitely quick reads) and is ready to move on. (Oh yeah, I should clearly state that I haven’t actually tracked down any statements about being done, it just really feels that way given the book.)

Overall, I’d say that if you want a man-going-on-adventures-with-a-lasergun kind of milsf, this is the series to read right now. Compared to a lot of the other stuff I posted about here, it’s definitely much more traditional SF, in the vein of (early) Scalzi and Weber (but much better–more refined–than the Weber I’ve read) and probably going back to Heinlein and co (though thankfully free of the eye-rolling “politics” and “ideas”). [If you’re worried about anti-woke BS, though (as I am, I’ll own it), rest assured that Kloos seems to be on the side of the angels.]

Incidentally, without spoiling anything, I’ll say that this recent astronomy news is quite pleasing given that I just finished the series:

Kloos has said on social media that this is the last book for Andrew and Halley, but not the last book in that universe.

Well I guess he and I are in agreement, then!

Yup! I’m definitely looking forward to more in that universe, and thought this was a fitting ending for those characters.

Have you read his Palladium Wars series? I quite enjoyed that one too.

Very interesting. I love(d) early Weber, Flint et al., much the same way I enjoy watching a good action movie, and at least in their early works, it’s usually not hard to overlook their political opinions. Gave up when entire pages of the books started becoming lectures by one character to another of their political belief system.

I assume Terms of Enlistment is the place to start. Is it self-contained, or is this the kind of book where you immediately need the follow-up?

Kloos’ political opinions are pretty far in the background; I would definitely give it a go. I suppose you could make the argument that the situation on Earth in 21XX (I forget the exact year) is a political statement; fair enough, but it’s not a particularly strong one, here. There’s a bit of the usual “I’m a grunt and I fight for my squadmates and I roll my eyes at the brass and politicians” kind of thing going on, but it’s not tiresome; it’s more “this is what it’s like being a soldier” than a political statement.

Generally, I give the series a rating of 7 of 10 on the self-containment scale. (It probably slides down to 5 for some of the later books, but if you’re still reading by that point you’ve bought into it so it’s not a problem.) 7 of 10 means “there’s a definite narrative arc to each story that ends with the end of the book, but the overarching background conflict(s) are not resolved”. It helps that each book is short (probably <300 pages) and they’re all pretty quick reads.

On this scale I just made up, 10 means “you don’t need to worry about finding the sequel if you don’t want to”; 5 means “you should probably just get the sequel when you pick up the book, and strongly consider waiting for the series to be finished before starting”; and anything 3 or under means “the author should have just published the whole damn series as one book”.

I’m about halfway through the third (currently last, IIRC). I also really like it, but it’s got four perspectives which is IMHO about one and a half too many.

I can appreciate that… err… perspective. I’m also not sure when that last volume is actually going to show up, it’s been awhile. Still, a fun read.

A Court of Thorns and Roses (Maas) - it’s become one of my sister’s favorites, and it’s like having a Ludus cheat sheet

Chaos (Gleick) - recommended by the good Dr. Sapolsky, Veritasium, and reads like a detective novel

Love & Math (Frenkel) - ordered on Amazon after watching an hourlong author interview on Numberphile, in which he discusses everything from connections between number theory and harmonic analysis to topology and Galois

The last two are paperback, the former I have on Kindle

I’d like to finish Jaynes’ Bicameral Mind, but gods is he dry. I’m more than halfway. Anthropology and origin of consciousness are two fascinating topics, Julian just… really thinks hard about these topics. I guess it’s meant to be read very slowly. This is probably a 2024 thing for me, if I haven’t lifted off Samsara and discovered the answer in some Bardo by then (joking).

Reclaiming the Canon (Sinaiko) is a little more grounded. The author anonymously handed this to me in hardcover on the street when I was a disillusioned second year physics student. I must have had a cloud following me, because we only spoke for a few minutes. Now it’s landing in a helpful/hopeful way, after I carried it around for two decades. It feels like our conversation is somehow continuing.

Just play Eklund’s Neanderthal.

Duuuude…

Greenland might even be more apropos because Jaynes’s thesis, if I’m not mistaken, is that the shift away from mystical experience happened in the last millennia. Eklund is specifically referencing Jaynes in both of those games, but Greenland takes place 1000 years ago just when this shift was supposed to happen and he uses it as a lens to elucidate why the Inuit were the winners in the conflict between Norse, Thule (Inuit) and Tunit.

I’ve now read all three of the Thursday Murder Club books that are currently available (a fourth is coming), and they’re all just as good as the first. Great characters, plenty of humor, some tragedy, mysterious killings…Osman keeps on delivering the goods.

Thanks for the recommendation, @ooomalley .

Read Katherine Addison’s “The Witness for the Dead”, the first book of her companion novel series (not really a sequel), to “The Goblin Emperor”. I rather enjoyed her first fantasy outing - it eschewed the classical high fantasy cliches, at the same time as it also stands apart from the - IMO, at this point - equally cliched grimdark crowd that seems to dominate today’s fantasy. Addison’s protagonists are generally good people, but they are not mighty heroes or battle fantastic evil monsters - they’re just people dealing with other people; sometimes evil, but as often as not just flawed people.

This book is not as good as the first, but it’s a well-written tale of everyday life of one of the side-characters of Goblin Emperor doing his job as a priest-detective solving murders, putting down ghouls, and feeding cats. Good enough that I’ll certaiinly pick up the sequel when I get the chance. Knowledge of the setting is probably useful, but otherwise there is almost no need for any knowledge of the previous book. The only really negative thing about this was the excessive titles, honorifics, and fantasy names which sometimes makes it hard to figure out who is who or what.

Hm, I think The Goblin Emperor was the one that John Scalzi was so excited about that I just completely bounced off of (usually I like what he likes, but tbh since I quit twitter I haven’t followed him at all). I don’t have it in my notes to confirm, alas, which means it was probably some years ago that I read it. I seem to remember that there was something about language–like there was a particular grammar you used when addressing nobility vs the peasants or something like that? I thought it was kind of clever but then the author leaned into it really hard and it made the book something of a pain in the ass to read, and eventually I was just rolling my eyes.

Anyway, totally sorry if I have the wrong book. And also, I really apologize for just coming in and dumping on something that someone else brings up–I hate it when people do that. I’ll try to redeem myself by saying that (if I’m remembering the book right) I really did like the (racial?) politics and overall narrative arc of the story.

Sounds like the Goblin Emperor. This one doesn’t have the court intrigue and politics of the first - it’s much more down-to earth and shorter, but it still has plenty of made-up words. I don’t recall being annoyed by that so much in the first one, but I suspect I was. Not a huge problem here, but annoying when you have to try and recollect who the Drazyacnadyar (or something) is supposed to be.

I just finished Book 10 (Reaper) in the Cradle series. Wow, that was really good.

Big Spoiler look only if you have read:

Summary

I knew something was going on with Eithan but didn’t foresee he was really Ozriel.

Oh yeah, the Cradle series! I forgot all about that. Book 12 came out a while ago, I should get that.