Best Reads of 2013

Here are my best reads in English during 2013. It was a really good year for quality, though I didn’t read very much: 41 books, twelve of which were e-books. The latter number was boosted by the Humble E-Book Bundle that I bought at Junior’s recommendation (sadly no longer up for sale). Find me at Goodreads!

  • Pirate Cinema. Cory Doctorow 2012. A fun, engaging and optimistic piece of polemic fiction, slightly preachy in parts, about the social and artistic consequences of intellectual property law.
  • Old Man’s War. John Scalzi 2005. Energetic co-ed military sf.
  • Stiff. The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers. Mary Roach 2003. Excellent non-fic about the things our remains go through after death.
  • Stories of Your Life and Others. Ted Chiang 2002. Short stories: idea-based scifi.
  • Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space. Carl Sagan 1997. Interesting and, again, just a little preachy.
  • Elves in Anglo-Saxon England. Alaric Hall 2007. What did they actually believe about elves and how did it change over time?
  • The Best of Saki. 1950. Short stories: misantropic, perceptive, elegant.
  • The Collected Short Stories of W. Somerset Maugham, vol. 2. 1951. Short stories: empathic, humorous, elegant.
  • Dagon and Other Macabre Tales. Howard P. Lovecraft 1939. Short stories: horror and Dunsanian fantasy, most of it great, some of it silly.
  • Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World. Nicholas Ostler 2006. Magisterial on the political history of not empires, not states, not nations – but languages.
  • Dangerous Visions. Ed. Harlan Ellison 1967. Short stories: ambitious and edgy sf.

Dear Reader, what were your best reads of the year?

Here’s my list for 2012.

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An Attempt To Move The Hanging Gardens

STL19BABYLON_343980kAbout the time of Alexander the Great in the 4th century BC, Greek writers started to offer lists of Seven Wonders that the well-read traveller should see. In the 2nd century BC the Hanging Gardens of Babylon began to show up on such lists. The location of Babylon is well known: on the River Euphrates in southern Mesopotamia. But no ruins of the Hanging Gardens have been convincingly identified there. This is because the gardens were actually in another city in another country, according to Stephanie Dalley’s new book, The Mystery of the Hanging Garden of Babylon. The Greeks got the city wrong early, says Dalley, and so created a spurious tradition.

The book has a problem with focus and target audience. It is inconsistent in how much familiarity with Dalley’s half-century of earlier work each chapter assumes on the part of the reader. I get a strong impression that during composition and revising the author has not quite been able to remember what she has put into this particular manuscript. She doesn’t introduce her big main thesis until midway through the book, and then in a wording that assumes that the reader already knows and just needs some extra convincing:

It would be satisfactory if we could account for [certain confusions], to strengthen yet further the [not yet made] argument that the Hanging Garden was built by Sennacherib in Nineveh rather than by Nebuchadnezzar or Semiramis in Babylon. (p. 107)

Boo to the editor who hasn’t kept a tighter rein on narrative continuity in this book. In fact, long before the quoted passage Dalley has established that one possible builder of the Gardens of Babylon mentioned in the Greek sources was an Assyrian king (they ruled over Babylon off and on), and she’s spent the interesting chapter 4 arguing that a long inscription of Sennacherib’s actually describes the building of the Gardens. But not once in the entire chapter does she mention the name of the city were she thinks this took place. This is not dishonesty on Dalley’s part, just poor organisation of the book: she simply doesn’t stop to consider that any reader may at this point need to be reminded that “Sennacherib’s South-West Palace” is in Nineveh on the River Tigris in Assyria – not in Babylon.

Dalley, in my opinion, does make a fine solid case for a set of Hanging Gardens in Niniveh, and I would happily follow her there. But does this remove the Gardens in Babylon from the agenda? No. It just transforms the Hanging Gardens from a unique item into an architectural category. Her attempts in Ch. 6 to take Babylon off the table amount only to convoluted special pleading. Dalley is clearly extremely fond of Niniveh and King Sennacherib, as evidenced by choices of expression and subject matter throughout. But to me, a man who is willing to be friends with any Middle Eastern city mound and ancient ruler, such favouritism is rather a weakness in a scholar.

Two thirds into the text the book goes completely off the rails, ending with three chapters that make little pretence at advancing any overarching argument. Ch. 7 comments on Sennacherib’s construction projects in general. “Look, they had multicolour stone flooring! Look, they had portable space heaters!” Ch. 8 offers motley bits and pieces about ancient gardens, which in Dalley’s mind all have an uncanny tendency to be inspired by the garden in Nineveh. Ch. 9 tries to extend Niniveh’s life as a major city past its conventional late-7th century demise, mainly in order to explain why anyone in the 4th century would still remember its garden and call it a Wonder of the World. This matter, though of some general interest in all its kaleidoscopism, must be seen for what it is: padding to fill out the book.

Here’s what I think. The various lists of World Wonders were a staple of Hellenistic tourism writing. Such information tends to get tested a lot. If a list had placed the Mausoleum in Carthage instead of Halicarnassus, then people would have corrected the error immediately. If there were no wondrous gardens in Babylon, then Greek and Roman travellers had several centuries to realise their mistake and write about it. None ever did.

Stephanie Dalley arguably has reason to be pleased with her book, as a sort of legacy. It presents her arguments on what is clearly a long-cherished issue in an accessible and durable format from a high-profile publisher. But the Oxford University Press can’t take much pride in this loosely held-together product. The selection of included images is erratic, partly gratuitous, and chapters 7–9 read like collated odds and ends out of a scholar’s notebook. Frankly, I get the feeling that this book reflects the mind of someone who either never quite had, or has recently begun to lose, the ability to make a sustained and focused argument.

I Was Wrong About Book-On-Demand

Here’s a fun case of me not anticipating an imminent technological development, not thinking that last centimetre of far enough. In July of 2007, six years ago, I wrote:

Lately I have come to think of books as computer devices, combining the functions of screen and backup medium. All texts these days are written and type-set on computers, so the paper thingy has long been a secondary manifestation of the text. People like publisher Jason Epstein and book blogger the Grumpy Old Bookman have predicted that we will soon have our books made on demand at any store that may today have a machine for making photographic prints. The texts will reside on the net, on our USB memory sticks or on our handheld computers/cell phones. The paper output/backup-storage device we call “a book” will be produced swiftly in the store by a dedicated machine.

A bit less than six months later, Amazon released the first Kindle e-book reader, making sure (in the words of The Guardian’s tech editor Charles Arthur), that a few years later “Amazon has millions of stores right on peoples’ desks, smartphones and tablets through its website and Kindle app”. Book-on-demand printing will never become big as I thought in 2007, because the texts don’t just reside on our phones as I noted – we read them on our phones now. I’ve never seen the point of a dedicated e-reader, just as I quit using my iPod as soon as I got a smartphone with enough storage for my music files. All devices dealing with information are converging on smartphones. And so, while use of the free Kindle smartphone app is booming, sales of the physical Kindle device are dropping off, reports The Guardian. And brick-and-mortar book stores are going the way of the record and video rental stores.

Strange though how poorly we (well, myself in this case) interconnect the various contents of our heads – an inability which H.P. Lovecraft calls the most merciful thing in the world in the opening paragraph of “The Call of Cthulhu”. When I wrote enthusiastically about book-on-demand printing, I had actually already begun reading books on my phone more than a year previously, in April of 2006, and I was already aware of e-reader hardware at the time. Only in 2010 however do I find myself entertaining the possibility of the paperback book becoming obsolete. This oversight probably had to do with e-book availability. In early 2006 few new books were available in digital format. The first one I read was a novel put on-line for free by its author, Michael “Grumpy Old Bookman” Allen. And reading PDFs on a smartphone still is no fun today, let alone on my tiny 2006 Qtek smartphone. Little did I know what Amazon was planning.

The Grumpy Old Bookman has returned to blogging! Check out his site if you like reading and/or writing and/or publishing!

New ?Guide Book To Medieval Stockholm

Historiska media is a publishing house in Lund. In recent years they have been putting out pop-sci guide books about Medieval Sweden, province by province. I’ve reviewed the volumes about Södermanland and Uppland provinces here. And now my friend and Fornvännen co-editor Elisabet Regner has written the first volume in the series that deals with a town, not a province: about Stockholm, in whose suburbs I’ve lived for almost all my life. Together with the Uppland and Södermanland volumes, Det medeltida Stockholm gives us Stockholmers a pretty good grip on our Medieval surroundings.

I shouldn’t really be reviewing my buddies’ books, so regarding Dr. Regner’s work I’ll just say that this lady knows what she’s talking about and she knows how to communicate it. The Stockholm volume has all the strengths of the previous instalments in the series: solid and interesting contents, generous thematic bibliographies, beautiful illustrations, good graphic design. But it also suffers even worse than the ones I’ve read before from weak guide-book machinery.

The subtitle is “an archaeological guide book”, but the volume hardly offers any of the rock-bottom basic aids I expect when I buy a city guide for tourists. I lay the blame at the doorstep of the editors, who also happen to be colleagues of mine, not tourism professionals.

  • The contents are organised thematically, not by city precinct. When standing at any given spot in the Old Town, I have to riffle through at least the chapters about the waterfront, the town and the ecclesiastic institutions for bits about that neighbourhood. And those chapters make up most of the book’s girth.
  • The single-page table of contents lists only six top-level chapter headings, and none of the informative section headings inside these chapters.
  • There are no page headers to aid browsing.
  • There is an alphabetical index at the back of the book, but it has been produced blindly according to whatever is mentioned in the text, not comprehensively according to names of streets or blocks. Three interesting spots may be on the same short alleyway, but I’m only likely to find one of them with the aid of the index because in one case the text (and index) refers to the street name, in another to the block name and in the third case to the building’s name, “the Petersén building” etc.

If instead we accept that despite the subtitle this is in no way intended as a guide book, but as a popular introduction to the subject that we are supposed to read from one end to the other (as I did), then we are, conversely, bothered by vestigial remains of guidebookishness. The text keeps repeating certain details in a way that would only make sense if you were reading bits of it here and there. Between pp. 114 and 145 Regner drops out of her attractive expository style and delivers a compact slab of archaeological data with street addresses as headings. Then it’s back to “In addition to the King and the Burghers, the Church was the third power factor that shaped the development of the Medieval town” etc.

To sum up, this good-looking and readable book is full of up-to-date and interesting information based on a comprehensive reading of the technical literature. But when standing, book in hand, at a particular spot in Stockholm’s Old Town, you are unlikely to be able to locate the relevant bits of information about that spot unless you have time to perform a brute-force search through the book from one end to the other. No e-book version that could make this easier is currently available.

The Sacred Blue String of Ethnic Identity

rarestblue-w180pxIn this well-written, painstakingly annotated and beautifully designed book, physicist Baruch Sterman (with contributor Judy Taubes Sterman) traces the history and prehistory of a certain blue pigment, along with its cultural and religious significance through the ages. It’s what the Torah and Talmud calls tekhelet, and it’s made from a gland harvested from Murex sea snails.

Though greatly interested in history, archaeology and biology, I find myself poorly equipped to engage with the book’s subject matter. Or put differently, I don’t think I’m part of its intended audience. Because there’s a major unstated premise here, explaining why a writer would want to view the history of the Eastern Mediterranean from such an odd thematic standpoint. Sterman assumes that his readers will find deeply meaningful certain mollusc-dyed blue treads prescribed in the Torah for the fringe of a Jew’s ritual shawl. Those tassels are where his entire project starts. He clearly feels that the 19th century rediscovery of the ancient sacred dye that had been forgotten for centuries was a symbolically important event that renewed Judaism’s ties with its origins. Indeed, working with dye is “… an integral part of my life’s goal: the modern renewal of ancient techniques and a return to practices forgotten for so many centuries and nearly lost to history” (p. 219). Whereas I – an atheist Gentile, a cultural relativist and a citizen of the world’s probably least nationalistic nation – believe that no culture is particularly meaningful or carries any intrinsic value.

All people have culture and funny traditional garments. That’s nothing to wave about. There is no way for us humans to avoid having culture and funny garments. If we manage to uphold some kind of long-term continuity in this area, then so what? A modern Jew still is not the same as an Iron Age Jew. A born-and-bred Swede, I am not even the same as the people who called themselves Swedes 500 years ago. The people who now wear blue-fringed ritual shawls are essentially reenactors to me. Renaissance Fair.

Don’t get me wrong: though he’s hugely enthusiastic about past leaders of Hasidism, I don’t think Sterman is an ethno-religious chauvinist. He just assumes that his reader will agree that customs such as the wearing of ritual shawls made according to ancient rules are very fine things. He describes his own attitude to those blue fringes in terms of “exuberant fervour” and “overwhelming sense of humility” (p. 210). Sterman is completely OK with the Baal-worshipping Canaanites of yore that get such a rough treatment by the Torah’s writers. But he doesn’t so much as mention today’s Palestinians. And after explaining that the Dome of the Rock sits on the site of the Jewish temple’s Holy of Holies, he admiringly describes the Temple Institute, an organisation that prepares for the reinstatement of scriptural Jewish temple service on that very spot! I can only call this passive-aggressive. And in that context it is distinctly odd to find Sterman speaking appreciatively about Irish independence from the English.

Sterman’s use of the Torah as historical source is completely uncritical. To point out just one of the more obvious issues, he doesn’t acknowledge that Kings David and Solomon are now widely considered to be fictional. They’re to Israel what the Yellow Emperor is to China. Last I checked, the 9th century BC King Omri of Israel was the earliest Biblical figure whose bare existence has unequivocal support in period sources. If I understand correctly, historians in Tel Aviv have accepted this for decades while the ones in Jerusalem hold on to the traditional accounts. Sterman is a very well-read man, as the book’s meaty bibliography attests. I can only assume that he knows that not even all Israeli Jews believe in King David any more, but has chosen to uphold a polite fiction that his intended reader will be happy to share.

I would prefer it if people living in Israel rolled up both their fringed shawls and their prayer rugs once and for all and sent them off to be recycled. They are a stark example of how unhealthy it is hold on to tribal superstitions and ancient identities. Jews should be more concerned with tying knots of fellowship with the Palestinians and neighbouring countries than with the fictional kings of a bygone golden age.

But if you’re willing to agree that ancient religious traditions should be cherished, that ancient religious scriptures are trustworthy historical sources, and that disgruntled ethnic minorities should be ignored, then this is a good read.

Sterman, B. & Taubes Sterman, J. 2012. The Rarest Blue. Jerusalem & New York. 306 pp. ISBN 978-965-229-621-4.

Kay Glans Mourns Authoritative Newspaper Discourse

Kay Glans used to edit the literary pages of Svenska Dagbladet, Sweden’s main conservative* newspaper, and Axess Magasin, a conservative Swedish arts & social sciences mag that also has a TV channel. The latter’s standard is high, and I’ve been particularly pleased to find repeated staunch rebuttals of post-modernism there. What I don’t like much in Glans’s oeuvre is a tendency for aesthetic idealism and aesthetic conservatism, of the canon-stroking sort. His writers tend to believe that there are classics that every educated person should read. I’m an aesthetic relativist and accept no canon of literature.

Glans has moved on and now edits Respons, a mag whose entire contents consist of book reviews – think The New York Review of Books or The Times Literary Supplement. In the current issue of Respons, the canonical perspective reappears. In fact, Glans is now mourning the loss not only of an agreed-upon literary canon, but of a canonical Swedish public conversation. In his editorial, he writes (and I translate):

“The image of people who walk around town, each absorbed by their own little device, is a sign that we are losing both our inner space and our collective space and increasingly live in a kind of gap. … The absorption in a virtual world also changes public space. The distinction between the private and the public is eroding, and so is the distinction between the important and the trivial. … A functioning public conversation is characterised by a hierarchy of attention.

[Lately young people] are well educated and competent within their fields but they do not take part in any public discourse [!], preferring to follow their own paths through life. … It is a consequence of the digital environment that you can dig your own tunnel through the information flow and avoid contact with other information. The great contribution of daily newspapers was that people were exposed to others’ opinions and to events and problems that they were not aware of.”

To this I would reply that I have never enjoyed the selective one-way public discourse offered by newspaper pundits. I was 23 when I got access to the World Wide Web, and I took a morning newspaper for at least ten years after that age, so I am quite familiar with the thing. In the main, the literature pages were full of the opinions of people I had no interest in, about books I had no interest in. I am largely a non-fic and genre reader. Rare indeed was the essay about Tolkien, Lovecraft or LeGuin in Svenska Dagbladet. The Nobel Prize for literature has so far proved a reliable criterion to identify writers that bore me silly. And so I have little respect for canonical literature.

Glans complains about people concentrating on a selective digital environment, and erroneously assumes that on-line discourse is somehow narrower than that published in newspapers. The advantage of on-line public discourse over national newspapers are in fact many.

  • Global instead of parochial/national
  • Democratic, two-way – no pundits
  • Specialised – interest groups come together and talk about what they care about instead of reading general newspapers about stuff in which they have no interest

This is of course part of why blogging is one of my favourite hobbies.

* US readers: what we call “conservative”, you would call “progressive Democrat”. What you currently call “conservative”, we call “crazy right-wing fringe”.

Hedge-Wizards and Hedge-Parsons

The Grey Mouser, along with Fafhrd the Northerner hero of Fritz Leiber’s genre-defining sword & sorcery story cycle, is the archetype of the Dungeons & Dragons thief. He began his career however, Leiber informs us, as apprentice to a “hedge-wizard” who taught him some simple magical cantrips. I never understood what a hedge-wizard was, until now. I imagined it had to do with living in a squalid cottage out in the fields and being in touch with nature, druid-like.

Reading Avram Davidson’s story “The King Across the Mountains”, I now came across a hedge-parson. And googling, I found out that such a priest was once “an Irish priest ordained without having studied at a regular college, but at a hedge school”. And such a school was “in Ireland, school kept in a hedge corner. An open air school”. (All according to Arthur English, A Dictionary of Words and Phrases Used in Ancient and Modern Law, Washington D.C. 1899.)

I wonder what sort of reader Leiber was envisioning, who would be able to make and appreciate the hedge-wizard – hedge-parson link.

Update 17 March: Dear Reader Derek points to an excellent selection of usage for the word “hedge-priest” and explains, “I think, the sort of reader who, like Leiber, would have read Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, that was quite popular in his day. Thanks to Scott and other 19th century authors, and their imitators, the hedge-priest was quite a cliché of historical novels set in mediaeval England.”

I haven’t read Ivanhoe in English and my edition is abbreviated. One part that’s been omitted, I now discover, is the argument in chapter 33 where the Prior calls Brother Tuck a hedge-priest.

Best Reads of 2012

Here are my best reads in English during 2012. I read 50 books this year, six of which were e-books. I flirted with LibraryThing for a while, but lately I’ve found that Goodreads is more the kind of leisure reading database/community that I enjoy. Find me there.

  • Packing for Mars. Mary Roach 2011. Delving into space exploration history to get a perspective on the gritty realities of a future human-staffed Mars mission. (Let’s first do sample return.)
  • My Early Life. Winston Churchill 1930. Scion of power spends his youth trying to get involved in war and trains as a cavalry officer as one of the last generation to do so.
  • Falling Free. Lois McMaster Bujold 1988. Charming and exciting scifi adventure.
  • Good Omens. Neil Gaiman & Terry Pratchett 1990. Wry contemporary fantasy classic.
  • Collected Fantasies. Avram Davidson 1982. Lovely short stories.
  • The Swerve. Stephen Greenblatt 2012. On the creation and rediscovery of Epicureanism, the ancient philosophy I come closest to espousing, through Lucretius’s The Nature of Things.
  • Erotic Refugees. Paddy Kelly 2012. Dick lit / romantic comedy set in Noughties Stockholm, reviewed here.

What were your best reads of the year?

Here’s my list for 2011.

Book Review: Erotic Refugees

I’ll tell you two things up front: this book is my friend’s first published novel; and I would have read it with great enjoyment even if I had no idea who the guy was. Paddy Kelly classifies it astutely as “Dick lit / Romantic comedy”: it’s Bridget Jones or Sex and the City, only from a male perspective. The plot revolves around the love lives of two young Irishmen in 00s Stockholm: one a neurotic recent divorcé and part-time single dad, the other a carefree ladies man. They’ve both ended up in Sweden for love, as “erotic refugees”. And here’s a freebie for future literature scholars trying to read this as a roman à clef: both main characters are based on the author.

Prose and plotting are tight and snappy, with a lot of good one-liners and no plodding stretches. The dialogue is pretty much pitch perfect: I don’t remember catching any false notes. The sex scenes are smutty enough to get your pulse up yet not explicit enough to move the novel into porn country. I must say I felt a little funny, reacting with considerable arousal to a piece of writing by a friend and fellow straight male. But then I thought, hey, he’s writing from memory and kindly letting his friends share bedroom situations of yore. Kelly is far too much of a gentleman to leave any clues in that would allow readers to identify the ladies in question. And no hard feelings are really there: it’s a female-friendly and wry book where even the psycho ex gets a sympathetic treatment.

Important period-specific motifs in the novel are the dot com boom and on-line dating. An important secondary concern that readers of Kelly’s blog and columns in The Local will recognise and appreciate is the humorous and sometimes exasperated commentary on Swedish society from an outsider’s point of view. Yet when one of Kelly’s characters returns to Ireland for a holiday, he realises that though his years in Stockholm have not quite made him a Swede, they have in fact changed him into something other than an Irishman.

All in all I warmly recommend this novel to men and women alike, particularly those now in their 30s and 40s, and particularly to readers with an active interest in the absurd contortions people go through to get naked together. Ladies, this book offers a candid view of the thought processes of the slightly over-sexed yet civilised male that so many of you know and love. Stockholmers, this is one of our time’s best tales of our fine city and the mores of its inhabitants.

Erotic Refugees is available as a download for the Kindle priced $5 or $2 depending on where you are. Kindle is not just a machine, it is also a free app for Apple and Android devices.

Scifi, Rocketry and Occult Silliness

Jack Parsons (1914-52) was a rocketry pioneer, a science fiction fan and a deeply committed occult follower of the aged Aleister Crowley. I recently read the 2004 edition of John Carter’s biography of the man, Sex and Rockets. The Occult World of Jack Parsons.

Despite such promising material, it’s not a very engaging or well-written book. It’s largely about rocketry and occultism, but neither field is contextualised very well. There’s lots of detail but not much in the way of a bigger picture. And Carter equivocates in his attitude to occultism. Sometimes he seems to believe in it, sometimes he makes fun of it, but he misses no opportunity to reproduce swaths of ceremonial babblings dreamed up by Crowley and Parsons. I’m not interested in what spells they chanted or whom they buggered (“strictly for magical reasons, my dear, I promise”). I want to know what they thought it would accomplish and what other people thought about them for it.

Occultism is exceptionally silly. Picture a robed Jack Parsons chanting Crowleyan invocations and masturbating onto a piece of parchment for several days while L. Ron Hubbard (as occult secretary) watches, takes notes and occasionally fakes cryptic messages From Beyond.

Hubbard was a con man. Eight months into his acquaintance with Parsons, the future founder of Scientology tired of humouring Parsons’s supernatural beliefs and disappeared with his host’s considerable savings and young girlfriend, the future Mrs. Hubbard.

This phrase from Parsons’s account of a vision he had in 1948 shows that he’d been reading Lovecraft: ”… went into the sunset … and into the night past accursed and desolate places and cyclopean ruins, and so came at last to the City of Chorazin. And there a great tower of Black Basalt was raised, that was part of a castle whose further battlements ruled over the gulf of stars.”

All in all Parsons comes across as a sad figure who bloomed early as a brilliant engineer and then got mired in occult confusion and deception.