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September 2017

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I've been slowly working my way through an audiobook of The Kalevala as my accompaniment to chores and errands. This morning, I was thinking about the phrase, "the dismal Sariola," which occurs quite frequently. Honestly, it doesn't seem that dismal unless you go wooing there, which is, of course, what everyone does in The Kalevala. Anyway, while I was picking out produce, I found myself idly wondering if Sariola were an identifiable place, and if one could visit it while in Finland, and what it would look like these days. I pictured a run-down gas station staffed by a single surly attendant in a little shop that carries beer of dubious vintage, a much dog-eared guide to pike fishing in the river of Tuoni, and T-shirts that read, "I made the Sampo for Louhi and all I got was a lousy betrothal."

It was something of a relief to discover that Sariola has no identifiable location and so there is no reality to contradict that mental image.
Procrastination: Why You Do It, What To Do About ItProcrastination: Why You Do It, What To Do About It by Jane B. Burka

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Probably one of the most comprehensive overviews of the causes of procrastination that I've read. I think this book does a really good job of demonstrating that procrastination is a complex thing, with many possible causes behind it. I particularly liked the discussion of how some procrastinators have a different relationship with time than non-procrastinators - I've personally found that a lot of my procrastination comes not so much from a reluctance to do a task but from things like vastly underestimating the amount of time it will take, assuming there will be time "later" to do it, or just getting completely caught up in something else and losing track of time.

The second half of the book, the "what to do about it" part, goes over slightly more familiar territory, with recommendations to do things like break tasks into smaller pieces, give yourself rewards, and enlist social support.

I won't say that the book is life changing, but having a better understanding of the reasons why I procrastinate has helped me tweak my anti-procrastination strategies to be a bit more effective. Which is enough for me - my procrastination is not bad enough to be crippling, although it does annoy me sometimes.

Finally, I just want to say that I've seen several reviews dissing the authors for admitting to their own struggles with procrastination. I don't get it - why would you read a book on overcoming procrastination written by people who had never struggled with procrastination? (Come to think of it, although I've used words like "non-procrastinators" and "people who have never struggled with procrastination", I'm not sure that such people exist. If you can honestly say that you've never procrastinated on anything, I would be fascinated to hear your experiences.)

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The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth GapThe Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap by Matt Taibbi

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Taibbi writes with a very distinctive style - he has a gift for outlandish and vivid metaphors, and a taste for highly emotive language. Sometimes, I wish he would cool it a little, because as a reader I'm wary of being manipulated. And there's plenty of stuff in this book where the bare clinical facts are entirely sufficient to produce outrage, and I don't need the author metaphorically poking me in the ribs saying, "Hey! Hey! Are you angry yet?"

And this book will definitely make you angry (and depressed), but it's an important read. Taibbi does an excellent job of dissecting two trends in the American justice system. First, the extent to which corporate fraud and other financial crimes are prosecuted very gingerly, if at all, and second, the extent to which (often poor, often non-white) individuals can routinely have the full force of the court system thrown at them for relatively minor offenses. The causes behind this are many. There's a big dollop of flawed legal precedent: the tale of the Holder memo is an amazing case study in unintended consequences from a policy that wasn't thoroughly thought through. There are lots of skewed institutional incentives: it turns out that if you evaluate police performance on a metric of number of arrests, police will find ways to make arrests at any cost. And if you tell the Justice Department that the thing that matters most is successful prosecutions, you can pretty much guarantee that the Justice Department will only prosecute slam-dunk cases. There's a whole lot of political theater in the form of politicians scoring cheap points by going after welfare recipients and undocumented immigrants. And a great big chunk of simple racism.

I don't think that there are simple solutions to any of these causes, but having read this book, I now feel much better informed about what the causes are, and ready to join the discussion of how to address them.

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The Coroner's Lunch (Dr. Siri Paiboun, #1)The Coroner's Lunch by Colin Cotterill

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This comes pretty close to everything I could want in a mystery series. It has an interesting historical setting (Laos in the 1970s, just after the Communist takeover). It has a protagonist with a sharp sense of humor, and a supporting cast of characters who are interesting and likable. The crimes to be solved range from personal crimes of passion to political intrigues. And there's an interesting hint of the supernatural which manages to walk a fine line between "yes, something that can't be explained by science is happening here" and "this guy's intuition has really interesting ways of operating." It's something I've seen other writers attempt, and it's often annoyed me, but in this case it works.

I don't think these books are nearly as well known in mystery reading circles as they deserve to be. If you like mysteries, check this one out.

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Intelligence Activities in Ancient Rome: Trust in the Gods But VerifyIntelligence Activities in Ancient Rome: Trust in the Gods But Verify by Rose Mary Sheldon

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It's hard to rate this book overall: it was a bit less exciting than I'd hoped for, but that's largely to do with two things. The first is that ancient Roman intelligence wasn't quite as exciting as I might have hoped for. It was a little underdeveloped by modern standards, and to the extent that Rome engaged in what we might call "spying," most of it was spying on their own citizens. The second is that the book is really written for the expert in military intelligence. Not so much in the sense that you need specialized knowledge to understand the information presented, but you might need specialized knowledge to understand why it is interesting or remarkable.

The book has all the fascinating anecdotes and glorious military victories and ignominious military defeats that you could want. I was particularly fascinated by the chapter on recent archaeological findings in the Teutoburg forest (where Varus famously lost three Roman legions). On the other hand, I kind of bogged down in the extensive discussion of possible signaling networks between Roman forts in various parts of Britain and Germany, and I put the book down and didn't pick it up again for quite some time. On the other hand, I'm sure for some readers the signaling networks are the best part - it all depends on what you're interested in.

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The Name of the Wind (The Kingkiller Chronicle, #1)The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I wasn't even really sure whether I should review this book, because I figure everyone has either already read it or made up their mind whether they're going to read it. But, here we go.

First off, there's no getting around the fact that the pacing is extremely leisurely. At times, this can be pleasant in a "relax and let the author spin you a yarn" kind of way; at other times, you are just waiting for something to happen. It does pick up a bit in the last third of the book.

Otherwise, this is a book whose virtues are very much bound up with its flaws, and whether you like it or not probably depends on how much particular flaws grate on you. For example, the world building is not terribly original, but by the standards of other books in the big fat fantasy genre, it at least feels reasonably solid and convincing. And Kvothe is just the sort of omnicompetent precocious protagonist with a prodigious ability to get himself both into and out of trouble that is going to strike some readers as a perfect wish-fulfillment character, and some readers as an egregious Gary Stu.

In the end, I found it reasonably entertaining, although I'm a bit frightened of the sequel, because statistically, multi-volume big fat fantasy series do not get more briskly paced as the series moves on.

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The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything...Fast (Audiobook)The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything...Fast by Josh Kaufman

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

For a start, I don't recommend getting this book on audio. It's well-narrated, but the chapters on learning programming and learning to play go would benefit a lot from visuals. (All the visuals are available from the book's website, but since I usually listen to audiobooks when I'm not sitting in front of a computer, that didn't do me a whole lot of good.)

This book is an interesting mix of how-to and memoir. The how-to part starts from the now-famous assertion that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master a skill…and then makes the happy assertion that it only takes about 20 hours of focused practice to get competent at a skill. Kaufman then lays out a check list of what you should do to maximize the results that you get out of your first 20 hours of practice. The principles seem to me to be good ones- some are things that I already do when learning something new, and some are ideas that are new to me.

The second and much longer part of the book is a kind of memoir of how Kaufman applied these principles to learning several different skills: yoga, programming basic web applications in Ruby, relearning to touch type, learning to play go, playing the ukelele, and windsurfing. I think it's probably a rare reader who will find all of these equally fascinating. The chapter on learning programming was fascinating, but if I weren't already half-competent at Ruby myself, I'm not sure if I'd have followed along at all. The chapter on relearning to touch type was actually unexpectedly fascinating. I found that the chapters on yoga and go dragged a bit.

Overall, this is a great read for relentless autodidacts everywhere, but get a paper or ebook copy so that you can skim the parts that you don't find as interesting.

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1453: The Holy War for Constantinople and the Clash of Islam and the West1453: The Holy War for Constantinople and the Clash of Islam and the West by Roger Crowley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A very vividly written account of the siege of Constantinople in 1453. Crowley has a knack for vivid writing, and can really make you feel as though you were there.

Crowley is particularly good at explaining military tactics and the technology of warfare. And the technology of warfare was particularly remarkable at the time. For example, the Byzantines protected the entrance to the harbor of the Golden Horn by stringing a giant chain across the mouth of the harbor, preventing ships from entering. So, what did Mehmet II, sultan of the Ottomans, do when he couldn't break the chain? Well, he had his men carry a bunch of war galleys overland and rolled them into the water on the other side of the chain. I also hadn't known that the Ottomans were early adopters of field artillery. Crowley's description of how they forged immense cannon in an attempt to bring down Constantinople's land walls is fascinating. As is his description of how the defenders of the city made a virtue of necessity - when the Ottoman cannon smashed their stone walls, they rebuilt them as wooden palisades with dirt piled between them - which did a much better job of absorbing the impact of the cannon balls.

Overall, the book is a great read, both informative and suspenseful. Though, be warned, it is a book that will make you want to read lots of other books, starting with Crowley's Empires of the Sea, which appears to be something of a sequel to this one.

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Teaching Critical Thinking: Practical WisdomTeaching Critical Thinking: Practical Wisdom by Bell Hooks

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I think that this is probably not the ideal place to begin my reading of bell hooks. I guess that this is what happens when you realize one day that you have somehow become a grown up person who calls herself a feminist without reading any bell hooks, and so you hop over to Amazon and grab the first couple of Kindle titles that sound interesting.

Not that this is a bad book by any means. If you do any sort of teaching (and I still do quite a lot of teaching even though "teacher" or "instructor" appears nowhere in my job title and hasn't for years), there are lots of good insights and things that will make you think here. But this doesn't feel like a "bell hooks 101" level book. The essays are short, pithy, and sometimes feel to me like they could use a bit more unpacking, as if they take for granted ideas and arguments that hooks has made at greater length elsewhere.

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The Greatest Traitor: The Life of Sir Roger Mortimer, Ruler of England 1327-1330The Greatest Traitor: The Life of Sir Roger Mortimer, Ruler of England 1327-1330 by Ian Mortimer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is really two books in one. The first (and largest) part of this book is a well-researched and engagingly written biography of Roger Mortimer, the man who (with the assistance of Queen Isabella) deposed Edward II of England and ruled for 3 years, until he was in turn overthrown, tried, and executed by Edward III. 14th century English politics can be quite messy and confusing, with lots of personal rivalries, shifting alliances, and constantly changing positions and titles, and Ian Mortimer (no relation to Roger) does a good job of making it all make sense.

The second part of the book is an epilogue in which Ian Mortimer lays out the evidence for his theory that Edward II wasn't actually murdered at Berkeley Castle in 1327. In Ian Mortimer's version of events, Roger Mortimer faked Edward's death to stave off political intrigues designed to return the deposed king to power. It's a tale of conspiracy at least as thrilling as those woven by all those folks who want to convince you that Richard III didn't kill the princes in the tower, but it has the advantage over those that I think I might actually be convinced. At any rate, I'm convinced that a fair number of people who had reason to be in the know believed that Edward II was alive after 1327. I'd want to do a little independent fact-checking before rendering a definitive opinion on Edward II's fate.

This book also really made me want to find a good biography of Queen Isabella. Because you really have to admire a woman, who, having been abandoned by Edward II and his favorite in the path of the advancing Scottish army, arranged her own passage back to England in a harrowing journey in which two of her ladies-in-waiting died, and then went straight to the Tower of London and struck up a secret correspondence with her husband's worst enemy, Roger Mortimer. Because she had clearly decided to be Done With Edward II's Bullshit. Forget all these kings and lords - I want to read a book about her.

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Consider Phlebas (Culture, #1)Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've embarked on a re-read of The Culture novels, starting at the beginning and going all the way through to the end.

It's been quite a long time since I last read Consider Phlebas, and I was a bit wary of rereading it, for fear of that it wouldn't hold up to the passage of time. After all, intelligent, literate space opera is no longer a rare or surprising thing, and the Culture isn't the startlingly new idea it was back when I first read these books either. Does Consider Phlebas still hold up?

It does, although I think some of its flaws are more obvious now. This novel has a very large cast of characters, many of whom never rise above being a collection of miscellaneous tics and traits before they're unceremoniously dispatched in the course of some giant set piece action scene. And I don't remember being quite so thoroughly annoyed by the book's protagonist, Horza, on my first read. Although given that he is an anti-hero who's fighting the Culture, maybe that's not a flaw.
Of course, the things I loved about the book the first time are here as well: the outsized futuristic settings - the megaships, orbitals, and underground rail-systems filled with ancient nuclear-powered steam trains; the action sequences in which these feats of futuristic engineering are often spectacularly demolished; and the slightly twisted sense of humor.

It's interesting that in this first Culture novel, we don't see that much of the Culture - and a large chunk of what we do see is through the eyes of their enemies. It's also a very early version of the Culture - both in series chronological order and, of course, in publication order, so what we do see is much less developed than in the other books which are set hundreds of years later. We don't see any banter between Ship Minds; characters don't have the ability to back up their personalities and download them casually into new bodies; even things like the drones and the Culture's genetic modification technologies seem a bit more primitive than what we see later on. Even the trademark "wacky ship names" seem subdued compared to what we'll see later - the main text features ships called "Nervous Energy", "Eschatologist", "The Ends of Invention", "Trade Surplus", and "Revisionist". Unusual names, to be sure, but hardly on a par with "Size Isn't Everything", "Anticipation of a New Lover's Arrival, The" or "Just the Washing Instruction Chip in Life's Rich Tapestry".

It'll be interesting to watch how the Culture develops through the subsequent novels, and to see how much looks like deliberate cultural evolution on Banks's part and how much is just him throwing in cool stuff as he thought of it.

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The Hydrogen Sonata (Culture, #10)The Hydrogen Sonata by Iain M. Banks

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I'd rate this one as a solid, but not spectacular Culture novel. It doesn't have the philosophical weight of Surface Detail, or the epic stakes of Consider Phlebas, or the sheer mess-with-your-headness of Use of Weapons. And without spoiling the ending, I'll say that it's the sort of ending that ought to feel like an anticlimax. The book is a bit like a roller coaster - it keeps you so engaged with its twists and turns that you don't feel cheated that at the end you're back where you started.

The book probably also has some of Banks's most spectacular action sequences. The Culture novels have always been notable for the fanciful futuristic constructions that Banks loves to create - giant ships, orbitals, and so on. In this book, he gets to destroy a few of these. Spectacularly and messily. Just as one example, a climactic sequence takes place on a giant airship (location of a continuous year-long floating party) which has been filled with a giant tank of water which party guests have to traverse to get to the ultimate party location. An android pursuing the book's heroes blows a hole in the tank, triggering massive flooding, gale force winds in the upper party area, and a huge increase in buoyancy for the airship, which proceeds to crash into the roof of the tunnel it's flying through. Then there's a laser firefight in the wreckage. This is one culture novel that I think would make a great movie, just for the pyrotechnics.

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Into Thin AirInto Thin Air by Jon Krakauer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I think I am possibly the last person on earth who might conceivably be interested in this book who hadn't read it or seen the film. So, I'm slightly uncertain about the utility of reviewing it. But here goes...

In 1996, Jon Krakauer joined an expedition climbing Mt. Everest as a reporter for Outside magazine. He ended up getting a bigger story than he bargained for, as a storm caught climbers on the mountain, resulting in 12 deaths, including several members of the expedition Krakauer had climbed with.

I've always found stories of high-altitude mountaineering fascinating, albeit in a way that makes me feel slightly uncomfortable. They're always stories of extremes, both physical and mental. People perform amazing feats of strength and endurance, or suffer complete and total physical breakdown. (And sometimes do both alternately or sequentially.) People show amazing bravery, compassion, or quick thinking under nearly impossible circumstances, or exhibit unbelievable selfishness, apathy, or stupidity. (Again, sometimes the same people at different times.) I can't decide whether Everest stories reveal something important about human nature or are merely sideshows about people behaving freakishly under freakish conditions that humans were frankly never meant to endure.

Anyway, Krakauer has a talent for sketching out the personalities of his fellow team members in a way that make them very vivid. And he has a real talent for making a complex series of events clear - I've read some other accounts of mountaineering disasters, and many writers have a lot of difficulty juggling varied accounts of what happened on different parts of the mountain without creating a muddle. The book is a fast and gripping read.

Of course, this very vividness and clarity has opened up Krakauer to criticism. Some people have objected to the way they or their relatives were portrayed in the book. And Krakauer was not actually present for some of the most dramatic events of the book, and is able to document that for at least one incident in which he was present, his memory was faulty, fogged by exhaustion and oxygen deprivation. It's possible that of the differing versions of events in the 1996 disaster, Krakauer's may have prevailed just because it is the most compellingly written.

In Krakauer's defense, he seems to have tried hard to make the most honest account he could. The second edition of the book, which I read, includes a section in which he addresses some of the criticism of the first edition. Of course, he may be misrepresenting his critics, but in general he seems to acknowledge where they have legitimate points.

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Waterlogged: The Serious Problem of Overhydration in Endurance SportsWaterlogged: The Serious Problem of Overhydration in Endurance Sports by Tim Noakes

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you're an endurance athlete who has ever been told that you should drink before you're thirsty or that you should drink sports drinks with electrolytes to prevent your blood sodium levels from dropping too low, you should read this book. Noakes meticulously outlines the science that proves that a lot of the conventional advice given about hydration is at best useless, and at worst, potentially fatal.

It's also a fascinating look at how the combination of faulty assumptions and commercial interests can skew the interpretation of scientific research. It was actually a bit shocking to me how little we really know about the causes of heatstroke or exercise-induced cramping. Because these conditions are difficult to produce in controlled laboratory conditions, much of what we know has been based on anecdotes or on experiments with less than ideal design.

It's also a very readable book, despite the quantity of detailed scientific data that Noakes discusses. (It might help that I've got a background in chemistry, and went in knowing what "millimolar" means.) I did find that the book got a bit repetitive towards the end - Noakes rightly takes seriously his obligation as a scientist to address all alternative hypotheses and interpretations of the data, but if you're just someone who wants to know how much you should drink while running, you've probably absorbed everything you really need to know by halfway through the book.

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Out of Our Minds: Learning to Be CreativeOut of Our Minds: Learning to Be Creative by Ken Robinson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If you've had the pleasure of hearing Ken Robinson speak (or seen his TED talk), you've already experienced most of the best bits of this book. This is a very entertaining book, with an important message, but in my case, I felt it was preaching to the choir. It is certainly nice to have someone saying that creativity is important in nearly all fields of endeavor, not just the arts; that creativity is a basic human skill that everyone can develop and nurture, not just special people; and that modern Western school systems do a terrible job of nurturing creativity in their students. But I believed all of these things before I read the book, and I can't escape the nagging feeling that the people who most need to be convinced of these things wouldn't read this book and wouldn't be convinced by it if they did.

Also, I do think the subtitle, "Learning to Be Creative," is a bit misleading. This is more a book about how institutions and cultures do or don't encourage creativity, and less about how individuals can be more creative.

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The Fragility of Goodness: Why Bulgaria's Jews Survived the HolocaustThe Fragility of Goodness: Why Bulgaria's Jews Survived the Holocaust by Tzvetan Todorov

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A short but fascinating book trying to explain why Bulgaria was one of only two German-aligned countries during World War II that didn't deport their Jewish populations. (The other being Denmark.)[Edited to add: [ profile] mrissa has pointed out to me that the preceding statement a) omits Finland, which also did not deport its Jewish population and b) in using the word "aligned" to try to describe the rather different situations of Bulgaria and Denmark during the war, implies that Denmark's cooperation with Nazi Germany might have been something other than forcibly coerced. I probably should have just said that Bulgaria and Denmark were both notable in their success in preserving their Jewish populations from deportation in the face of considerable German pressure, and left it at that.] It's a particularly dramatic story, because Bulgaria had deported nearly 12,000 Jews from Bulgarian-controlled Macedonia and Thrace (of whom 12 survived the war), and the Bulgarian government had actually gotten to the point of arresting large numbers of Jews and preparing to load them onto trains for Poland before the whole thing was abruptly called off.

The first part of the book is an essay in which Todorov lays out his explanation for how this happened. As his title implies, his thesis is that it was highly contingent - a number of things had to be true simultaneously for the outcome to be reached. Some of the things that Todorov highlights:
* Bulgaria had neither a particularly strong tradition of anti-semitism, nor a particularly strong narrative of Bulgarian national superiority. Bulgaria's Jews didn't live in ghettos, spoke Bulgarian, and were mostly artisans and small businessmen with a sprinkling of educated professionals like lawyers. This meant that a lot of Nazi propaganda about the Jews didn't really resonate with a lot of Bulgarians. (Lots of the contemporary documents reproduced in the book contain some version of, "Have you seen our Jews? They're poor.")

* The fact that Bulgaria's king, Boris III, was primarily focused on his own political power and Bulgaria's national interest rather than any anti-Jewish ideology. It's kind of hard to figure out what side Boris was on, because he was great at telling everyone what they wanted to hear. Nevertheless, Todorov is convinced that the king was powerful enough that if he'd wanted Bulgaria's Jews deported, they'd have been deported. The king managed to keep the Germans convinced for ages that he was completely in agreement with their Jewish policies while failing to implement the deportation. (There is an account in the book of a rather hilarious-sounding conversation between Boris III and von Ribbentrop, in which Boris tried to convince von Ribbentrop that Bulgarian Jews were different because they were "Spanish" (he meant Sephardic). von Ribbentrop was unconvinced.)

* Finally, the most critical element was a well-timed and well-orchestrated piece of parliamentary politics by vice-chairman of the Bulgarian National Assembly, Dimitar Peshev. This is the part where I wish the book were longer, because I don't really completely understand the nuances of parliamentary politics in wartime Bulgaria. Peshev wrote an eloquent letter of protest against the deportation of Bulgaria's Jews, and managed to get a fairly large percentage of the members of the governing party in the Assembly to sign it. The immediate result was that Peshev was censured and stripped of his post as vice-chairman, which doesn't sound like a resounding political success. But it seems to have done the trick in persuading the government that the deportation would buy them more trouble domestically than it would be worth in support from Germany.

The longer part of the book consists of reproductions of various contemporary documents - letters, newspaper reports, and diaries related to the events surrounding the attempted deportations. The documents shed a particularly interesting light on the claim that you sometimes hear that people didn't know what was happening to the Jews in Nazi Germany. I don't know what people knew in other places, but the documents make it pretty clear that everyone from writers of articles in Communist newspapers to Bulgarian government ministers knew that if they sent the Jews to Poland they were going to die horribly.

Overall, the message of this book seems to be that if good people want to stop evil from happening, they need not only to be passionate and vocal but very very good at operating the levers of political power. Food for thought.

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[Minor edits made to correct the name of the king of Bulgaria, which I'd somehow bobbled from "Boris" to "Basil". Since the most famous Basil in Bulgarian history was "Basil the Bulgar Slayer" this seemed particularly inept.]
Running Through Corridors, Volume 1: The 60s: Rob and Toby's Marathon Watch of Doctor WhoRunning Through Corridors, Volume 1: The 60s: Rob and Toby's Marathon Watch of Doctor Who by Robert Shearman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Rob Shearman and Toby Hadoke spent a year watching every episode of Doctor Who in order and writing down their thoughts about it. If your reaction to that idea is, "Wow, that sounds fun!" then this is the book for you; If your reaction is, "Wow, that is...exceptionally geeky," (or worse), then you should probably pass.

Shearman and Hadoke are possibly the perfect people to take on this project. Both are Doctor Who fans, and have been from an early age. Both are a bit obsessive. In addition to sheer fannish enthusiasm, though, Shearman brings a seasoned dramatist's eye for pacing and story structure, while Hadoke brings to bear both his own experience as an actor as well as his incredible knowledge of British character actors. I don't think I've ever read another book on Doctor Who that bridges the technical and professional perspective and the sheer fannish sense of delight so effortlessly. (Well, maybe The Writer's Tale. But that's a very different beast.)

It's not exactly a quick read, partly because it is so dense with opinion and information, and partly because it will make you want to stop and rewatch the episodes they're discussing. If you are a fan of 1960s Who, you should have this book.

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Confessions of a Pickup Artist ChaserConfessions of a Pickup Artist Chaser by Clarisse Thorn

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I suspect that this book will serve as an excellent introduction to feminist theory for a lot of people who would never pick up a book about feminist theory, but would pick up a book about picking up chicks.

Not that this is really a book about "picking up chicks" - it's more like an ethnography on the pickup artist community, except without as much of the pretense of academic objectivity implied by the word "ethnography".
Pick-up artistry, for those not familiar with it, is a set of techniques taught to men to help them convince women to have sex with them. (There are fringe elements of pickup artistry that are devoted to women picking up men, or same-sex relationships, or which are actually focused more on relationships than sex, but the core of it is men's pursuit of women for sex.) Thorn does a good job of conveying the sense of horrified fascination that one feels on learning about this stuff. For anyone who's ever found the whole process of approaching an interesting member of the opposite sex really awkward, the idea that there are techniques that can make it go more smoothly is pretty appealing. On the other hand, the tendency of the movement to reduce women to Skinner boxes whose job is to dispense sex if you push the right buttons is pretty appalling, as is the fact that some popular techniques amount to a script for date rape.

Thorn uses this mix to spin out some pretty thought-provoking commentary on how we view sex and relationships as a culture.

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PhysiologusPhysiologus by Michael J. Curley

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is an odd little book. I read it for research for a fiction project I'm working on in order to a) get a general sense of what actual bestiaries were like and b) to pick up some ideas for magical creatures that I might incorporate into my story. I certainly got a), although this book is crammed with Christian allegory that really isn't appropriate to my fictional setting. I'm not so sure about b), simply because many of the best stories in this book are about relatively mundane animals like antelopes, owls, pelicans, and elephants. Although the author believes any number of outlandish things about these animals.

Reading this takes me back to an early high-school English class where the teacher's only notion of getting us to do any kind of literary interpretation was to encourage us to look for Christ imagery. Every animal is either Jesus or Satan. If you don't end up giggling about the Tiny Elephant Jesus, you're a better person than I am.

Then you get passages like this, "Formerly, Isaiah the Prophet pointed out that the sirens and ass-centaurs and hedgehogs will come into Babylon and dance [cf. Is. 13:21 and 34:14]." No translation of Isaiah that I possess seems to say any such thing, confirming my suspicions that the Bible was more fun back in the day.

The book has an extensive introduction and notes (which taken together are longer than the actual text), which helps make the whole thing make more sense. It's not the kind of thing most people would read for fun, but if you need a good dose of medieval natural history and religious allegory, this is a great place to start.

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