Sign of Chaos

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As I'm sure I may have previously mentioned: I own the one-volume compendium of Roger Zelazny's ten Amber novels, The Great Book of Amber. It's nice to have one big doorstop of a book instead of having to keep track of ten various hardcovers and paperbacks, but I keep getting reminded of how slapdash the "Great" book was.

Case in point, on the back cover, the eighth book's title is "Signs of Chaos." Guys, that's wrong. It's just one sign.

As the book opens, our second-half protagonist, Merlin, has been lured by sorta-antagonist Luke into a Lewis Carroll situation, with Humpty, the Cheshire Cat, a Bandersnatch (variety: frumious), etc. It's a trap, but (eventually) Merlin escapes, leaving Luke behind, on to work out the ongoing mystery of who's threatening to do what to the merry land of Amber.

And he does that for a while, about 135 pages in fact. That's the problem with reading these books so far apart, especially at my age: one tends to forget who's who and what's going on. ("Vielle? Who is Vielle, again?") Anyway, there's a stunning revelation about the true identity of Merlin's antagonist "Mask", and a cliffhanger for the next book.

Anyway: now only two left to go.

Glory Road

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I read this back in the 1960s, on my initial round of Heinlein-devouring. That was a school library book, and I remember being kind of shocked that the Omaha Public Schools would think this sort of filth was suitable for young eyes. (Didn't stop me from reading it though.)

The pic/Amazon product link over there on the right is the same edition I now own. Apparently set me back a cool $2.50 back in 1984 or so; it has languished unread on my paperback shelves until now. One of the reasons for my Heinlein-rereading project, now with a mere 31 books remaining.

The narrator is Evelyn Cyril "Oscar" Gordon; as the book opens, he is rattling around Europe after an unpleasant hitch fighting an unnamed war forthe US Army. While on a clothing-very-optional island off the French Riviera, he gapes at a beautiful unclothed woman, who tells him he's beautiful.

Intrigued by a classified ad that promises adventure, he's surprised that the offer is made by the very same woman! He signs up for a perilous, complicated quest for the "Egg of the Phoenix". They, with her grumpy assistant Rufo, set out on their universe-hopping exploits.

What follows: magic, swordplay, fisticuffs, culture clashes, all incredibly dangerous. Plenty of PG-13 talk about sex, where 20th Century American mores are derided as hopelessly out of step with the rest of the universe. There are a lot of winking references to other fantasies: Tolkien, Carroll, Baum, and probably many others I didn't pick up.

This is literally fantasy, both in the usual sense, and also in the adolescent wish-fulfillment sense. What male American teenager doesn't want to take off on a wacky adventure with a gorgeous babe who routinely sheds her clothes?

That said, there are a few pages here, where Oscar is in battle with the guardian of the Egg of the Phoenix, I think are among the best passages of Heinlein I've read.

Here's an odd thing: once the Egg is retrieved, you've still got about 30% of the book left to go. This is filled with… not a lot of things actually happening. A lot of dialogue, a lot of monologue. It's not awful—it's Heinlein, after all—but I'm not sure that was a good call. Nobody asked me.

Minds Make Societies

How Cognition Explains the World Humans Create

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Another book I can't quite recall why I put on the get-at-library list. But I did (ILL from Boston College, thanks). And I regret to say, it wasn't for me.

The author, Pascal Boyer, is an anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist, now teaching at Washington U in St. Louis. His goal here is to offer evolution-based explanations for the puzzling behavior of human belings, around the globe and over history.

The main part of the book is organized around various questions. For example:

  • Why are humans so good at cooperating in small groups, but fiercely (and sometimes violently) competitive with humans outside their group?
  • We are pretty good at accumulating information quickly and using it to make good decisions about our future. But also common are various forms of group irrationality: moral panics, investment bubbles, socialism. Why is that?
  • Why is modern religion such a recent development in human history?
  • We like to think that our current traditions and laws involving family life are "natural", based on our human nature. But, given the sweep of history, are they really?
  • We seem to have notions of "fairness" and "trade" built into our brains, but just and prosperous societies have (again) only relatively recently developed. Is that just a big hairy accident, likely doomed to self-destruction?
  • Can we, with our limited intellectual powers, claim to "understand" societies at all? They're devilishly complex!

With regard to the religion one, I found myself asking: if God called Abraham only around 4,000 years ago, what was He up to for the previous 200,000 years of mankind's history? Just not paying attention? How does my local pastor explain that, anyway?

Anyway: These could be fascinating topics. Prof Boyer does his level best to make them dull.

Well, that's unfair. Probably a more accurate way of putting it: he doesn't write down to my level. Sample sentence, plucked at random (page 228):

So the force dynamics that come to mind when we think about power relations, those notions of pushing and pulling, of force and resistance, are only very awkward ways of representing large-scale interactions that are vastly more complex, and indeed too complex for our conscious representations.

Yeah, well, maybe. I got the (probably unfair) idea that Prof Boyer wrote this in French, got someone else to translate it into English.

Anyway: it's one of those "I looked at every page" books. And I learned stuff, but probably missed a lot too.

Night Work

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Another reading project, catching up with the oeuvre of Steve Hamilton, a fine mystery writer. His previous books were in the Alex McKnight (ex-ballplayer, ex-cop, ex-private eye) series, set in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. This one is a "standalone"; the protagonist/narrator is Joe Trumbell, a probation officer in upstate New York.

Why yes, I did read two mysteries in a row set in upstate New York. Good catch.

Joe is kind of a mopey guy; his fiancée, Laurel, was brutally murdered a couple of years previous. He lives over an old bus station, converted into a boxing gym. He has a huge collection of jazz records. (And, like a lot of jazz fans, he can't stop yammering about jazz.)

He decides to try dating once more, however. And he hits it off with his first blind date, Marlene. But… yes, you saw this coming: Marlene gets brutally murdered too. Joe is understandably upset, but so is the local police force, and the NY staties. And (of course) Joe's a suspect. And the book is written in such a way that I wasn't sure that Joe shouldn't be a suspect; he pretty clearly has Issues.

The book is kind of long and it feels very, very padded. Not only with the jazz stuff, but Joe's seeming obsession with describing every building, every bit of scenery, every bit of room decor… As I've said about other works, I suspect Hamilton's book contract specified a certain number of pages be delivered.

Still, it works well as a thriller, and I certainly sped through it to find out what happened and whodunit.

Some Buried Caesar

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I can remember why I put this book on the TBR pile: at some point in the distant past, I came across a list of Roger Zelazny's favorite mystery novels. I resolved to read the ones I hadn't read already.

But that was long ago. I'm pretty sure this was the last book on the list. I can't, however, find that list now. And I don't remember what other books were on it. Ah, well.

I've read a lot of Chandler, Hammett, etc., but I had so far avoided Rex Stout's novels featuring his detective Nero Wolfe. I had picked up some general conceptions, more or less accurate, involving obesity, orchids, reclusiveness, and his dependence on Archie Goodwin for footwork and occasional fisticuffs.

So this book is a little unusual, because Wolfe and Archie are out of New York City, headed up to show Wolfe's prize orchids at the (apparently fictional) "North Atlantic Exposition" in upstate New York. A freak auto accident strands them in the countryside, and while making their way to a nearby farmhouse, they run afoul of a local prize bull, which goes under the name Hickory Caesar Grindon.

Such is the nature of contrived mystery books: the bull is owned by an NYC restaurateur named Pratt, who acquired him under contentious circumstances. Adding to the controversy: Pratt intends to butcher the bull for ths publicity value, outraging the locals and the former owner.

A large bet is made that this won't happen. And soon enough one of the bettors is found gorily dead inside Caesar's corral. But did Caesar do it, or…

This didn't grab me enough to start devouring Nero Wolfe novels, a little too gimmicky. And it's one of those books where they throw the suspects at you all at once, and wish you good luck keeping everyone straight. But the details of its time and place (late 1930s America) are kind of interesting. Archie is a fun narrator, but (unfortunately) some of his prose seems to be dated enough to be incomprehensible to my ears.

The Practicing Stoic

A Philosophical User's Manual

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The author was invited to the Volokh Conspiracy recently to plug this book. I was intrigued enough to put in an Interlibrary Loan request for it; and up it came from Brown University, where apparently there aren't a lot of Stoic-curious students. Want to see if you'd be lured in as well? Those posts are here, here, here, here, and here.

I'm pretty sure this will go on my top ten list for this year.

The author, Ward Farnsworth (Dean of The University of Texas School of Law) has done a masterful job of presenting, and advocating for, Stoic philosophy. (My previous exposure: Tom Wolfe's A Man In Full, back in the previous century.)

Farnsworth's method is "progressive", but—whew!—not in a political sense. He starts with foundational building blocks, works upward to more advanced topics that follow from those basics. The text relies heavily on quoted snippets from the biggies: Seneca, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, with a host of "guest speakers": Kant, Montaigne, Samuel Johnson, Adam Smith, et al. This works pretty well: we see things in a logical, topical, order; easier to take than trying to digest each philosopher's thoughts in the order in which he wrote them.

What you'll notice immediately: the Stoics were a lively and observant bunch. Their insights into human nature are revelatory and not at all dated. Yes, Seneca lived 20 centuries ago. Guess what? Humans still behave and think pretty much the same way as they did back then. Their remarks remain trenchant and not without humor. As an example, here's Seneca, from the "Death" chapter:

Does it do any harm to a good man to be smeared by unjust gossip? Then we should not let the same sort of thing do damage to death, either, in our judgment; for death also has a bad reputation, but none of those who malign death have tried it.

Doesn't that tickle your funny bone a little? Worked for me, anyway.

There's a downside of getting such a book at the library. It deserves to be studied and re-read every so often. I didn't find myself agreeing in places, but I may have been reading too superficially.

In the Woods

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Although I'm not much in the market for adopting new authors into my TBR system, sometimes it just happens. The weekly "editorial roundtable" episodes of the Reason podcast have a segment where the participants reveal which media they've been reading, watching, or playing with recently. And Peter Suderman was effusive in his praise of the "Dublin Murder Squad" series by Tana French. (And, by the way, Peter is not alone: this book won the 2007 Edgar Award for Best First Novel, and much mainstream critical praise was heaped thereon.)

Even better: This first book in the series was available at the UNH Library, so I decided to take a flyer.

The narrator is Rob Ryan; he and his partner, Cassie Maddox, are called to investigate the horrid, sordid murder of a twelve-year-old girl found in the woods of a Dublin suburb. The girl's family is weird. The murder scene is about to be obliterated by a new highway, and archeologists are frantically digging up whatever they artifacts they can find from long-ago inhabitants; the archeologists are weird too. And there's some shady stuff going on with corrupt city officials and crony developers.

But what's really bad is Rob's history: twenty years ago, he and two friends were playing in those very same woods. His friends vanished without a trace; Rob was found, near-catatonic and bloody, unable to remember what happened to them. Could the present day murder have links to that past horror? Yeah, maybe! Rob is already keeping his traumatic past a well-hidden secret from nearly everyone, but (even so) it's a poor choice for him to get enmeshed in the present crime. Unfortunately for Rob, it's just the first of many poor choices.

This is a combination police procedural and psychological thriller, and both parts work well. So, yeah, I'm up for reading more Tana French.

A Farce to Be Reckoned With

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Another "catch up" book: I should have read it sooner after I bought it. (I had the receipt stuck in between the back cover: purchased at the long-defunct Stroudwater Books in Dover, NH on April 5, 1996. Hey, a mere 22 and a half years, give or take!)

It is the concluding entry in the so-called "Millennial Contest" series writtn by Robert Zelazny and Robert Sheckley, now both passed on. I read the previous books (Bring Me the Head of Prince Charming and If at Faust You Don't Succeed) at some point before I kept track of such things. Fortunately, the book is enjoyable as a standalone.

The book is copyright 1995; Zelazny died in June of that year. So who knows what the Sheckley/Zelazny ratio of book content is?

The demonic protagonist of the previous book, Azzie Elbub, is still looking for ways for Evil to triumph over Good. He's in the Renaissance era, and morality plays are all the rage. Hey, Azzie thinks, how about an immorality play? He hires/tempts a cynical playwright with his idea: take some ordinary folk, offer them their dearest wish, which will be granted them despite their lack of heroic effort and manifest character flaws. The real-time, real-life results will be immortalized in the play.

A simple scheme, and it would have worked too, except for those darned kids the intervention of the forces of Good, and a whole lot of unintented consequences that threaten to rip apart the nature of reality.

To be honest, these books are frothy and forgettable (I've already forgotten about the first two), but a lot of fun to read.

The Emperor's New Mind

Concerning Computers, Minds, and the Laws of Physics

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Another deep dive into the bookshelves to read something I should have read closer to the time I bought it (circa 1991, in this case). Fortunately, my Book Picker script is (very slowly) making me more disciplined. In this case, there's a certain amount of punishment involved, too, because this book was kind of painful to read.

The author, Roger Penrose has had a long and distinguished career in math and mathematical physics. He hasn't received a Nobel (neither did his occasional more famous collaborator, Stephen Hawking), but he's won pretty much everything else.

This book lays out his contention ("theory" is too strong a word) that human consciousness can not be adequately explained by a computational model; the mind is not simply a computer made of meat. He believes that, deep down, there's some quantum weirdness going on. Hence, no matter how "smart" artifical intelligence might become, it will never adequately model human intelligence.

Or something like that. Penrose seems likeable enough, but he is not a gifted writer. And I'm pretty sure, despite the lavish blurbs on the cover, that very few lay readers outside the rarefied field of mathematical physics have read this all the way through with understanding.

Suggestion, should you attempt it: read the Prologue and Chapter 1, about 29 pages, where he sets up the issues. Then skip ahead to Chapter 10 (about 45 pages) where he provides his interesting takes on the "physics of mind".

His Chapter 10 discussion is contentious, slightly hand-waving, but fun to read. It slightly depends on the intervening ~375 (!) pages, where Penrose lays out (an incomplete list): the Turing-machine theory of computability; lambda calculus; fractals; Gödel's theorem; classical mechanics; special and general relativity; quantum mechanics; statistical mechanics; cosmology; quantum gravity. And a basic discussion of brain physiology.

Let me be clear: if you had a decent understanding of these topics, you would be a very advanced undergraduate, probably graduate, student in computer science. And physics. And mathematics. There's no way you're going to pick this stuff up by reading 375 pages of Penrose prose.

Still, an admirable attempt. I can't (however) help but think it was quickly written to hitch onto Hawking's A Brief History of Time coattails, another book famous for having been bought but not read.

Leonardo da Vinci

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I got this book on the recommendation of none other than Bill Gates, who put it on his "5 books worth reading this summer". (And—ha—I finished it yesterday, just a few hours before the Autumnal Equinox.) It's one of those rare occasions where the University Near Here library owns it and it hadn't been checked out until April 2019 by some book-hoarding faculty member.

(Don't get me started… oh, wait, I guess I did start. I'll stop now.)

The book is by Walter Isaacson, previously the author of books on Steve Jobs and Albert Einstein. Isaacson is a polished writer of popular non-fiction, and this reads smoothly. Another factor was my near-total ignorance of the details of Leonardo's life. ("He was… Italian, right?") So just about everything was new and interesting to me. The book is lavishly illustrated with color reproductions of a number of Leonardo's paintings, drawings, and excerpts from his notebooks. There's a lot of analysis and interpretation of Leonardo's works. (And, since I'm totally ignorant about such things, they may even be insightful and correct, what do I know?)

What struck me most was the confluence of factors that made Leonardo into the figure we know today. Okay, fine, he was blessed with a high raw intelligence. But other features of his personality played a vital role as well: his curiosity was turned up to eleven; his powers of patient observation were unmatched; he was an utter perfectionist. (One of the things I didn't know: Mona Lisa is, technically, an unfinished painting; Leonardo worked on it for years, and it was in his possession when he died.)

Leonardo was also gay, people of his time were well aware. Also illegitimate, and who knows what role these factors played in his life trajectory?

Also vital were the time and place: Renaissance Italy. Full of prosperous merchants and rulers who had nothing better to do with their wealth than to patronize artistic and engineering genius. Portraits needed painting, churches needed decorating, armies needed innovative weaponry, … Outside of that environment, Leonardo would have become what? A notary, like his dad?

Also interesting was Leonardo's interactions with other famous folk. He had some dealings with Michaelangelo–they didn't get along. He spent some time in the employ of the notorious Cesare Borgia, a very nasty guy, but that didn't seem to scruple him much. While there, he hung around with Machiavelli, too.

Bottom line: interesting and readable. Somewhat distracting was Isaacson's occasional comparisons of Leonardo with Steve Jobs. (Page 353: "Innovation requires a reality distortion field." Really? I guess, maybe, I wouldn't know.)