Minor Thoughts from me to you

Archives for Reading Ideas (page 1 / 2)

Reading Idea: Norse Mythology

Norse Mythology

Norse Mythology
by Neil Gaiman
$12.99 on Kindle

Growing up, somewhere around the age of 10, I was a huge fan of Norse mythology and read several different versions and retellings. I'm also a big Neil Gaiman fan. So, really, all Goodreads had to do was send me an email letting me know that Neil Gaiman had written a novelization of the Norse mythology. Sold. It was, as they say, self recommending.

I'll give you the Goodreads blurb anyway, just in case you're not already as excited as I am.

Neil Gaiman has long been inspired by ancient mythology in creating the fantastical realms of his fiction. Now he turns his attention back to the source, presenting a bravura rendition of the great northern tales. In Norse Mythology, Gaiman fashions primeval stories into a novelistic arc that begins with the genesis of the legendary nine worlds; delves into the exploits of the deities, dwarves, and giants; and culminates in Ragnarok, the twilight of the gods and the rebirth of a new time and people. Gaiman stays true to the myths while vividly reincarnating Odin, the highest of the high, wise, daring, and cunning; Thor, Odin’s son, incredibly strong yet not the wisest of gods; and Loki, the son of giants, a trickster and unsurpassable manipulator. From Gaiman’s deft and witty prose emerges the gods with their fiercely competitive natures, their susceptibility to being duped and to dupe others, and their tendency to let passion ignite their actions, making these long-ago myths breathe pungent life again.

Reading Idea: Hero of the Empire

Hero of the Empire

Hero of the Empire
by Candice Millard
$13.99 on Kindle

Robert Costa Tweet

@costareports: Book recommendation: "Hero of the Empire" by Candice Millard. Terrific insights on political ambition, the media and a young Churchill.

So what's it about?

Churchill arrived in South Africa in 1899, valet and crates of vintage wine in tow, there to cover the brutal colonial war the British were fighting with Boer rebels. But just two weeks after his arrival, the soldiers he was accompanying on an armored train were ambushed, and Churchill was taken prisoner. Remarkably, he pulled off a daring escape--but then had to traverse hundreds of miles of enemy territory, alone, with nothing but a crumpled wad of cash, four slabs of chocolate, and his wits to guide him.

The story of his escape is incredible enough, but then Churchill enlisted, returned to South Africa, fought in several battles, and ultimately liberated the men with whom he had been imprisoned.

All of that plus an analysis of political ambition and the media? Sounds right up my alley.

Reading Idea: The Saga of Recluce

The Magic of Recluce

I've somehow never managed to hear of L.E. Modesitt Jr, even though he's written over 60 books. The Tor blog helped me to overcome my ignorance. I read the first book earlier this year and I'm looking forward to reading more.

A Beginner’s Guide to the Fantasy Worlds of L.E. Modesitt, Jr.

“The most important thing you need to know about Recluce—both the saga and the island—is that there is a neverending battle between chaos and order. In their natural state (a.k.a. Balance), these qualities make up all matter; but as white wizards unleash the entropy of chaos and black mages harness the structure of order, these forces become imbalanced. Modesitt’s intention was to subvert fantasy tropes by having the “good guys” wear black, though, as he points out, there is a lot more gray area to it—and not just the “grays” who can manipulate both chaos and order. Even as the first book, The Magic of Recluce, establishes Recluce’s tenets of uniformity and repetition in order to keep chaos at bay, such monotony—even with the safety it provides—bores protagonist Lerris. His lack of engagement with order gets Lerris sent away from home on the dangergeld, or ritualistic journey to learn more about the world before deciding if he will follow Recluce’s rules. But ennui aside, what we’ve learned from all of the dystopian fiction that has been released in the 25 years since the first Recluce book is that order can be just as dangerous as chaos.

While Lerris’ dangergeld is the focus of the first book, he is by no means the series’ protagonist; in fact, each of the characters in the 18 books to date get only one or two novels. In a recent piece for Tor’s Fantasy Firsts series, Modesitt challenged the notion that The Saga of Recluce is a series, considering that they neither follow one protagonist nor take place in “a single place or time”—instead spanning 2,000 years, and the rise and fall of empires worldwide in 20 countries on five continents. And even then, he adds, “the Recluce books aren’t really a ‘saga,’ either, because sagas are supposed to be tales of heroism following one individual or family. And that’s why I tend to think of the Recluce books as the history of a fantasy world.”

The internal chronological order is also vastly different from the publication order—if you’re going by timeline, the series starts with 2001’s Magi’i of Cyador and concludes with 1995’s The Death of Chaos. Modesitt says it’s the reader’s choice to read the books in either order, or neither, the only caveat being that one should read the first book of a certain character before going on to the second.”

I'm going to list out the books in chronological order. I'm a sucker for knowing where in the timeline everything happens.

  1. Magi'i of Cyador ($8.99)
  2. Scion of Cyador ($7.99)
  3. Fall of Angels ($8.99)
  4. The Chaos Balance ($8.99)
  5. Arms-Commander ($7.99)
  6. Cyador's Heirs ($8.99)
  7. Heritage of Cyador ($9.99)
  8. The Mongrel Mage (coming October 31, 2017)
  9. The Towers of the Sunset ($8.99)
  10. The White Order ($7.99)
  11. The Magic Engineer ($9.99)
  12. Colors of Chaos ($7.99)
  13. Natural Ordermage ($7.99)
  14. Mage-Guard of Hamor ($8.99)
  15. The Order War ($7.99)
  16. The Wellspring of Chaos ($7.99)
  17. Ordermaster ($7.99)
  18. The Magic of Recluce ($9.99)
  19. The Death of Chaos ($8.99)

Reading Idea: Aubrey–Maturin Series

Master and Commander

After reading the Hornblower series, it only seems natural to read the other major naval series set during the Napoleonic era.

Aubrey–Maturin series - Wikipedia

The Aubrey–Maturin series is a sequence of nautical historical novels—20 completed and one unfinished—by Patrick O'Brian, set during the Napoleonic Wars and centering on the friendship between Captain Jack Aubrey of the Royal Navy and his ship's surgeon Stephen Maturin, a physician, natural philosopher, and intelligence agent. The first novel, Master and Commander, was published in 1969 and the last finished novel in 1999.[1] The 21st novel of the series, left unfinished at O'Brian's death in 2000, appeared in print in late 2004. The series received considerable international acclaim and most of the novels reached The New York Times Best Seller list.[1] These novels comprise the heart of the canon of an author often compared to Jane Austen, C. S. Forester and other British authors central to the English literature canon.

  1. Master and Commander ($8.87)
  2. Post Captain ($10.07)
  3. H.M.S. Surprise ($8.47)
  4. The Mauritius Command ($9.47)
  5. Desolation Island ($9.48)
  6. The Fortune of War ($9.47)
  7. The Surgeon's Mate ($9.46)
  8. The Ionian Mission ($9.47)
  9. Treason's Harbour ($9.46)
  10. The Far Side of the World ($9.47)
  11. The Reverse of the Medal ($9.54)
  12. The Letter of Marque ($10.99)
  13. The Thirteen-Gun Salute ($10.99)
  14. The Nutmeg of Consolation ($9.88)
  15. The Truelove ($9.49)
  16. The Wine-Dark Sea ($10.04)
  17. The Commodore ($9.46)
  18. The Yellow Admiral ($10.39)
  19. The Hundred Days ($9.85)
  20. Blue at the Mizzen ($9.89)
  21. The Final Unfinished Voyage of Jack Aubrey ($10.74)

Reading Idea: Sharon Kay Penman

Here Be Dragons

I heard of Sharon Kay Penman last summer, when George R.R. Martin recommended multiple writers of historical fiction. Reddit comments backed up Martin's recommendation.

I have read some of Sharon Kay Penman's books. If you're into history, they are really really wonderful. She creates a captivating story while also keeping true to much of the history within the time periods she specializes in.

Reviews on Goodreads concurred.

AJ

It is incredibly accurate with regard to characters and events they were a part of, precipitated, and were involved in, impressively so.

Cassy

Did I mention this book is heavy on the history? It is honest-to-goodness historical fiction. Joanna, John, Llewelyn, and the other big players are the real deal. Sometimes Penman’s commitment to accuracy and completeness bogs down the story. There would often be a gap of years between chapters. And characters would give these odd monologues to catch readers up on what happened. What a beautiful day. It reminds me of last June when my father, the Earl of Whatever made a pact with Duke of Wherever. Of course, Papa would only consent to such an alliance, because Prince Whoever was taken hostage by Evil Guy. It was exhausting, but I loved it.

Meeting Penman last week confirmed the obvious: this woman knows her stuff. She was out promoting her latest book, Lionheart. Most authors start off talking about their writing process. Not Penman. She dove into a history lesson. When someone from the audience asked her opinion on a couple of obscure historical figures, she knew exactly who they were and broke down their life in great detail. And trust me, no one was yawning. She was really fascinating.

Penman had two series that caught my eye: Welsh Princes and Plantagenets.

Welsh Princes

Thirteenth-century Wales is a divided country, ever at the mercy of England's ruthless, power-hungry King John. Llewelyn, Prince of North Wales, secures an uneasy truce by marrying the English king's beloved illegitimate daughter, Joanna, who slowly grows to love her charismatic and courageous husband. But as John's attentions turn again and again to subduing Wales—and Llewelyn—Joanna must decide where her love and loyalties truly lie.

  1. Here be Dragons ($9.99)
  2. Falls the Shadow ($9.99)
  3. The Reckoning ($9.99)

Plantagenets

A.D. 1135. As church bells tolled for the death of England's King Henry I, his barons faced the unwelcome prospect of being ruled by a woman: Henry's beautiful daughter Maude, Countess of Anjou. But before Maude could claim her throne, her cousin Stephen seized it. In their long and bitter struggle, all of England bled and burned.

Sharon Kay Penman's magnificent fifth novel summons to life a spectacular medieval tragedy whose unfolding breaks the heart even as it prepares the way for splendors to come—the glorious age of Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Plantagenets that would soon illumine the world.

  1. When Christ and His Saints Slept ($7.99)
  2. Time and Chance ($5.99)
  3. Devil's Brood ($12.99)
  4. Lionheart ($6.99)
  5. A King's Ransom ($11.99)

Reading Idea: CEO, China: The Rise of Xi Jinping

CEO, China: The Rise of Xi Jinping

CEO, China: The Rise of Xi Jinping
by Kerry Brown
$15.66 on Kindle

Another book recommendation from Tyler Cowen. This earns a spot on my reading list because I've been wanting to learn more about China.

CEO, China: The Rise of Xi Jinping - Marginal REVOLUTION

That is the new and excellent book by Kerry Brown.  Almost all books on China are either bad or mediocre, but this one is the best book I ever have read on the exercise of power in contemporary China.  Every page is good, here is a short excerpt:

More important than a cabinet in the Western system of government, yet ostensibly separate from day-to-day decision making, the Politburo owns the crucial function of dispensing ideological, spiritual and political leadership.  This description means it covers nothing and everything.  It has the broadest framework within which to operate, which means it can wander into every area of administrative and governmental life in the country.  But like the ideal city described in Plato’s Republic, in a strange way China is really run on the model of philosopher kings.

Definitely recommended, one of my favorite non-fiction books of the year so far.  I can readily imagine re-reading it.

Reading Idea: The Red Sphinx

The Red Sphinx

The Red Sphinx
by Alexandre Dumas
$12.99 on Kindle

Newly translated, a sequel to ‘The Three Musketeers’ is as fresh as ever

Originally called “The Comte de Moret,” “The Red Sphinx” first appeared during 1865 in Les Nouvelles, but it was never quite completed after the magazine folded. For this handsome new edition — the work’s first translator since a wretched 19th-century version — Lawrence Ellsworth appends a related novella titled “The Dove,” which brings the adventures of the Comte de Moret and his beloved Isabelle de Lautrec to a dramatic, nick-of-time close.

Yet the Red Sphinx himself, as the historian Michelet dubbed Cardinal Richelieu, wholly dominates the book’s 800-plus pages. The action begins in December 1628, shortly after the French victory at La Rochelle chronicled in “The Three Musketeers.”

From the start, Dumas presents Richelieu as a man of cool analytic intelligence, who is nonetheless devoted to France and beloved by those who serve him, including his next-door neighbor, the courtesan Marion Delorme. Like a modern spy master, the cardinal seeks data about everything happening in Europe. In some of Dumas’ best chapters, Richelieu even acts as a detective, trying to crack a cold case: Who actually planned the assassination of Henri IV? The search for information gradually leads him to the dark secret of the Convent of Repentant Daughters.

Since so much of the pleasure of this novel involves its slowly unfolding plot, I won’t say too much more. But there are scenes of farcical comedy (usually involving the cardinal’s servants), France nearly topples because of a peevish boy-favorite of the king, two old enemies sword-fight while seated in sedan chairs, and young love blossoms.

In the final third of this continually enjoyable novel, the action moves to the battlefield, as the armies of France enter Italy. Here several guerrilla operations behind the lines should thrill even fans of Bernard Cornwell. Here, too, Richelieu encounters a young papal officer named Mazarino Mazarini, who will eventually become a French citizen and ultimately Richelieu’s successor, Cardinal Mazarin.

So, en garde! In Lawrence Ellsworth’s excellent, compulsively readable translation, “The Red Sphinx” is just the book to see you through the January doldrums. And maybe those of February, too.

​I love The Three Musketeers. There's no way I can avoid checking this out.

Reading Idea: All the Shah's Men

All the Shah's Men

All the Shah's Men
by Stephen Kinzer
$8.28 on Kindle

I discovered this book after David Henderson wrote about it.

Kinzer tells the story, in great detail, of how Kermit Roosevelt, grandson of TR and an employee of the CIA, set in motion the overthrow of Mohammad Mossadegh, the prime minister of Iran in the early 1950s. It's fascinating and disturbing: I found Roosevelt even more evil than I had expected.

I remember that when the Iran radicals had taken over the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in November 1979, they chanted and had signs about the CIA. Shortly after November 1979, I learned the connection with the 1953 events, but I had just assumed that they were angry about the CIA's role in 1953. Kinzer suggests an even more direct connection. He writes:

The hostage-takers remembered that when the Shah fled into exile in 1953, CIA agents working at the American embassy had returned him to his throne. Iranians feared that history was about to repeat itself.

In the back of everybody's mind hung the suspicion that, with the admission of the Shah to the United States, the countdown for another coup d-etat had begun," one of the hostage-takers explained years later. "Such was to be our fate again, we were convinced, and it would be irreversible. We now had to reverse the irreversible."

The whole story is tragic. Iran was a fledgling democracy stopped in its tracks by the U.S. government at the behest of the British government. When the Iranians finally overthrew the Shah, they got, not another liberal democracy, but a vicious theocracy.

The motivation for the coup was to get back the oil company that Mossadegh had nationalized. I don't defend nationalization, but overthrowing a government to reverse it is too extreme. I think Americans would be justly upset if, in response to the U.S. government's nationalization of an Iranian firm, Iran's government fomented a coup against the U.S. government. Moreover, as British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin, of the Labour government, had said at the time: "What argument can I advance against anyone claiming the right to nationalize the resources of their country? We are doing the same thing here with our power in the shape of coal, electricity, railways, transport and steel."

This would pair well with reading The Fall of Heaven.

Reading Idea: The Death of Caesar

The Death of Caesar

The Death of Caesar
by Barry S. Strauss
$12.99 on Kindle

I've had this book written down for a while now. I think Goodreads recommended it to me, based on my reading history. I've always been interested in Roman history, so this intrigued me right away.

Goodreads

The exciting, dramatic story of one of history’s most famous events—the death of Julius Caesar—now placed in full context of Rome’s civil wars by eminent historian Barry Strauss.

Thanks to William Shakespeare, the death of Julius Caesar is the most famous assassination in history. But what actually happened on March 15, 44 BC is even more gripping than Shakespeare’s play. In this thrilling new book, Barry Strauss tells the real story.

Shakespeare shows Caesar’s assassination to be an amateur and idealistic affair. The real killing, however, was a carefully planned paramilitary operation, a generals’ plot, put together by Caesar’s disaffected officers and designed with precision. There were even gladiators on hand to protect the assassins from vengeance by Caesar’s friends. Brutus and Cassius were indeed key players, as Shakespeare has it, but they had the help of a third man—Decimus. He was the mole in Caesar’s entourage, one of Caesar’s leading generals, and a lifelong friend. It was he, not Brutus, who truly betrayed Caesar.

Caesar’s assassins saw him as a military dictator who wanted to be king. He threatened a permanent change in the Roman way of life and in the power of senators. The assassins rallied support among the common people, but they underestimated Caesar’s soldiers, who flooded Rome. The assassins were vanquished; their beloved Republic became the Roman Empire.

Reading Idea: The Last Lion

The Last Lion

The Last Lion
by William Manchester
$50 on [Kindle][kindle]

I discovered this biography while listening to Russ Roberts talk to Ryan Holiday, on the July 18 episode of EconTalk.

So, let's take the flip side of that character trait, and let's look at Winston Churchill. And Winston Churchill, you talk about in the book. But he had, it appears, an enormous ego that sustained him through all kinds of failure. He was blamed politically in the first World War. And in the run-up to WWII, he's considered a crazy lunatic who is worried about Nazi Germany. And ultimately his reputation is redeemed and he's considered one of the greatest figures of the 20th century, like top five. So, his ego--and by the way, you quote, I think, the Manchester biography, Volume 2, Alone. Well, in Volume 1, one of the moments that's legendary in my household because my kids loved it so much--you know, he escapes from a prison in the Boer War, walks a huge distance, I forget how far, and presents himself in the middle of the night at the British Embassy and pounds on the door and someone opens a window upstairs and says, 'What's going on?' And he yells up something like, 'It's Winston Bloody Churchill. Open this door.' And so, here's a man who is totally full of himself, as far as I can tell. And he's a great success. So, why is ego the enemy?

Guest: I'm fascinated that you would ask this, because — and for our listeners, we did not plan this — I am actually in, I have like 10 pages left, in Volume 2. And I read Volume 1 in the last couple of weeks. So, I've been reading about Churchill, and he's fascinating. And the Manchester biography is so great, because he looks at that ego; and he says over and over again, basically Hitler and Churchill were opposite sides of the same coin. And he says — it's interesting, maybe the only reason that Churchill saw through Hitler was that he saw a bit of that megalomania in himself.

That sounded interesting enough to check out. The full biography is three volumes, all available on Kindle.

  1. Visions of Glory, 1874 – 1932, $14.99
  2. Alone, 1932 – 1940, $14.99
  3. Defender of the Realm, 1940 – 1965, $19.99

The first two volumes were written by William Manchester alone. The third volume was written by Paul Reid, whom Manchester brought in after Manchester developed writer's block. Paul Reid was supposed to actually co-write the last volume with Manchester, but Manchester died before the project got fully off of the ground. Reid ended up having to mostly research and write the last book himself.

Reading Idea: The Fall of Heaven

The Fall of Heaven

The Fall of Heaven
by Andrew Scott Cooper
$19.99 on Kindle

While expensive, this book comes with a strong endorsement from Tyler Cowen. I've been reading a lot about the 60's and 70's over the past couple of years. This would fit right into that pattern.

The Fall of Heaven - Marginal REVOLUTION

I loved this book, the author is Andrew Scott Cooper, and the subtitle is The Pahlavis and the Final Days of Imperial Iran.  It is the best book I know for understanding the Iranian revolution, and it is compulsively readable throughout.  Did you know for instance that the Ayatollahs were deeply disturbed by the presence of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and also Rhoda on Iranian TV?

I would describe this book as relatively sympathetic to the Shah, and also arguing that the oppressions and tortures of Savak are sometimes overstated.

This one makes my best non-fiction of the year list, and it will be in the top tier of that list.

Reading Idea: Northlanders

Northlanders

Northlanders
by Brian Woods
$40 on ComiXology

I heard about this series on a 4-year old episode of The Incomparable podcast. I'm not going to try to transcribe Lisa Schmeiser's comments, but you can visit this link to listen to them: The Incomparable #126: A Dark, Dark Narnia. (Her comments start at 42:33 and the link should jump you to right to them.)

The idea of a comic that tells interrelated stories about the historical Viking culture was a fascinating one. I read quite a bit about the Vikings (and Norse mythology) growing up. I'd love to read more about them and the visual storytelling aspect of comics should be valuable as well.

Reading Idea: Hidden Figures

Hidden Figures

Hidden Figures
by Margot Lee Shetterly
$10.99 on Kindle

I was interested in this story when I first saw it as a movie trailer. Then I found out that it was based on a book and now I'm interested in reading the book.

Publisher's description

Before John Glenn orbited the earth, or Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, a group of dedicated female mathematicians known as “human computers” used pencils, slide rules and adding machines to calculate the numbers that would launch rockets, and astronauts, into space.

Among these problem-solvers were a group of exceptionally talented African American women, some of the brightest minds of their generation. Originally relegated to teaching math in the South’s segregated public schools, they were called into service during the labor shortages of World War II, when America’s aeronautics industry was in dire need of anyone who had the right stuff. Suddenly, these overlooked math whizzes had a shot at jobs worthy of their skills, and they answered Uncle Sam’s call, moving to Hampton, Virginia and the fascinating, high-energy world of the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory.

Even as Virginia’s Jim Crow laws required them to be segregated from their white counterparts, the women of Langley’s all-black “West Computing” group helped America achieve one of the things it desired most: a decisive victory over the Soviet Union in the Cold War, and complete domination of the heavens.

Starting in World War II and moving through to the Cold War, the Civil Rights Movement and the Space Race, Hidden Figures follows the interwoven accounts of Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson and Christine Darden, four African American women who participated in some of NASA’s greatest successes. It chronicles their careers over nearly three decades they faced challenges, forged alliances and used their intellect to change their own lives, and their country’s future.

Reading Idea: Into The Lion’s Mouth

Into the Lion's Mouth

Into The Lion’s Mouth
by Larry Loftis
$13.99 on Kindle

I've been a long-time fan of the Bond movie franchise. I've even read a book or two. I've always thought that Bond was obviously fictionalized, that no real spy would come anywhere close to what Bond routinely does. According to Loftis, one man did. I first heard about his book on an episode of The Art of Manliness Podcast.

The Real Life James Bond

Bond is so damn manly, it’d be easy to think that he was purely the creation of author Ian Fleming’s imagination. But in fact, Bond was inspired by a real-life WWII spy, and his life and career was even more Bond-like than James Bond himself.

My guest today has written a biography of the real-life inspiration for James Bond. His name is Larry Loftis and he’s the author of the book Into The Lion’s Mouth: The True Story of Dusko Popov: World War II Spy, Patriot, and the Real-Life Inspiration for James Bond. Today on the show we talk about Dusko Popov and his career as a double agent during WWII. Larry and I discuss how Dusko got involved with spying, the insanely dangerous missions he went on, and the real-life encounter between him and Ian Fleming that inspired one of popular culture’s most iconic characters.

Reading Idea: Remembering Abraham

Remembering Abraham

Remembering Abraham
by Ronald Hendel
$57.95 on Kindle

Robert Alter mentions this book in his introduction to The Five Books of Moses, as he talks about the historical origins of the Five Books.

Scholarship for more than two centuries has agreed that the Five Books are drawn together from different literary sources, though there have been shifting debates about the particular identification of sources in the text and fierce differences of opinion about the dating of the sundry sources. Some extremists in recent decades have contended that the entire Torah was composed in the Persian period, beginning the late sixth century B.C.E., or even later, in Hellenistic times, but there is abundant evidence that argues against that view. Perhaps the most decisive consideration is that the Hebrew language visibly evolves over the nine centuries of biblical literary activity, with many demonstrable differences between the language current in the First Commonwealth—approximately 1000 B.C.E. to 586 B.C.E.—and the language as it was written in the Persian and Hellenistic periods. There is very little in the Hebrew of the Torah that could have been written in this later era. (Ronald Hendel provides a concise and trenchant marshaling of the linguistic evidence against late dating in the appendix to his Remembering Abraham.) A recent revisionist approach, purportedly based on archeological evidence, places the composition of our texts as well as most of the Former Prophets in the seventh century B.C.E., during the reign of King Josiah, the period when, according to scholarly consensus, most of Deuteronomy was written. This contention, however, flatly ignores the philological evidence that Deuteronomy was responding to, and revising, a long-standing written legal tradition, and that the editors of the so-called Deuteronomistic History (the national chronicle that runs from Deuteronomy to the end of 2 Kings) were manifestly incorporating much older texts often strikingly different from their own writing both in style and in outlook.

I looked up the book and the description caught my eye.

According to an old tradition preserved in the Palestinian Targums, the Hebrew Bible is "the Book of Memories." The sacred past recalled in the Bible serves as a model and wellspring for the present. The remembered past, says Ronald Hendel, is the material with which biblical Israel constructed its identity as a people, a religion, and a culture. It is a mixture of history, collective memory, folklore, and literary brilliance, and is often colored by political and religious interests.

In Israel's formative years, these memories circulated orally in the context of family and tribe. Over time they came to be crystallized in various written texts. The Hebrew Bible is a vast compendium of writings, spanning a thousand-year period from roughly the twelfth to the second century BCE, and representing perhaps a small slice of the writings of that period. The texts are often overwritten by later texts, creating a complex pastiche of text, reinterpretation, and commentary. The religion and culture of ancient Israel are expressed by these texts, and in no small part also created by them, as they formulate new or altered conceptions of the sacred past. Remembering Abraham explores the interplay of culture, history, and memory in the Hebrew Bible. Hendel examines the Hebrew Bible's portrayal of Israel and its history, and correlates the biblical past with our own sense of the past. He addresses the ways that culture, memory, and history interweave in the self-fashioning of Israel's identity, and in the biblical portrayals of the patriarchs, the Exodus, and King Solomon. A concluding chapter explores the broad horizons of the biblical sense of the past.

This accessibly written book represents the mature thought of one of our leading scholars of the Hebrew Bible.

It's a lot pricier than my normal reads (by at least a factor of four), but it sounds interesting nonetheless. It's not on my immediate list of things to find and read, but I wanted to remember it for future research and reading.

Reading Idea: Hillbilly Elegy

Hillbilly Elegy

Hillbilly Elegy
by J. D. Vance
$12.99 on Kindle

Throughout the Republican primary, I kept wondering what attracted people to Donald Trump. Because I always look for the good in people, I refused to believe that Trump’s supporters were motivated by racism, misogyny, or nationalism. Some were, I’m sure. But all of them? I believed that there had to be something more — something that Trump represented that resonated with certain Americans.

Rod Dreher’s interview with J. D. Vance in The American Conservative caught my interest. Dreher had high praise for Vance’s book, Hillbilly Elegy and focused on the problem of Trump.

The book is an American classic, an extraordinary testimony to the brokenness of the white working class, but also its strengths. It’s one of the best books I’ve ever read.

His book does for poor white people what Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book did for poor black people: give them voice and presence in the public square.

​And the interview focused on the relationship between Trump and his voters.

RD: A friend who moved to West Virginia a couple of years ago tells me that she’s never seen poverty and hopelessness like what’s common there. And she says you can drive through the poorest parts of the state, and see nothing but TRUMP signs. Reading “Hillbilly Elegy” tells me why. Explain it to people who haven’t yet read your book.

J.D. VANCE: The simple answer is that these people–my people–are really struggling, and there hasn’t been a single political candidate who speaks to those struggles in a long time. Donald Trump at least tries.

What many don’t understand is how truly desperate these places are, and we’re not talking about small enclaves or a few towns–we’re talking about multiple states where a significant chunk of the white working class struggles to get by. Heroin addiction is rampant. In my medium-sized Ohio county last year, deaths from drug addiction outnumbered deaths from natural causes. The average kid will live in multiple homes over the course of her life, experience a constant cycle of growing close to a “stepdad” only to see him walk out on the family, know multiple drug users personally, maybe live in a foster home for a bit (or at least in the home of an unofficial foster like an aunt or grandparent), watch friends and family get arrested, and on and on. And on top of that is the economic struggle, from the factories shuttering their doors to the Main Streets with nothing but cash-for-gold stores and pawn shops.

The two political parties have offered essentially nothing to these people for a few decades. From the Left, they get some smug condescension, an exasperation that the white working class votes against their economic interests because of social issues, a la Thomas Frank (more on that below). Maybe they get a few handouts, but many don’t want handouts to begin with.

From the Right, they’ve gotten the basic Republican policy platform of tax cuts, free trade, deregulation, and paeans to the noble businessman and economic growth. Whatever the merits of better tax policy and growth (and I believe there are many), the simple fact is that these policies have done little to address a very real social crisis. More importantly, these policies are culturally tone deaf: nobody from southern Ohio wants to hear about the nobility of the factory owner who just fired their brother.

Trump’s candidacy is music to their ears. He criticizes the factories shipping jobs overseas. His apocalyptic tone matches their lived experiences on the ground. He seems to love to annoy the elites, which is something a lot of people wish they could do but can’t because they lack a platform.

The last point I’ll make about Trump is this: these people, his voters, are proud. A big chunk of the white working class has deep roots in Appalachia, and the Scots-Irish honor culture is alive and well. We were taught to raise our fists to anyone who insulted our mother. I probably got in a half dozen fights when I was six years old. Unsurprisingly, southern, rural whites enlist in the military at a disproportionate rate. Can you imagine the humiliation these people feel at the successive failures of Bush/Obama foreign policy? My military service is the thing I’m most proud of, but when I think of everything happening in the Middle East, I can’t help but tell myself: I wish we would have achieved some sort of lasting victory. No one touched that subject before Trump, especially not in the Republican Party.

​I already bought a copy of this book and I’ll be reading it soon.

Reading Idea: A Mad Catastrophe

A Mad Catastrophe

A Mad Catastrophe
by Geoffrey Wawro
$11.99 on Kindle

I can be persuaded that a book is interesting on the slimmest of recommendations, sometimes. For instance, this offhand comment by Warren Meyer.

Back in the depths of WWI, the Germans woke up one day and found that their erstwhile ally Austria-Hungary, to whom they had given that famous blank check in the madness that led up to the war, was completely incompetent. Worse than incompetent, in fact, because Germany had to keep sending troops to bail them out of various military fixes, an oddly similar situation to what Hitler found himself doing with Italy in the next war. ([A Mad Catastrophe] is a really interesting book if you have any doubts about how dysfunctional the Hapsburg Empire was in its waning days).

And that's pretty much how Amazon describes the book too.

A prizewinning military historian explores a critical but overlooked cause for World War I: the staggering decrepitude of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Reading Idea: The Accursed Kings

The Iron King

The Accursed Kings
by Maurice Druon
$45 on Kindle

Reading Recommendations from George R.R. Martin (emphasis added)

Fantasies are not the only books I recommend to my readers, however. It has always been my belief that epic fantasy and historical fiction are sisters under the skin, as I have said in many an interview. A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE draws as much on the traditions of historical fiction as it does on those of fantasy, and there are many great historical novelists, past and present, whose work helped inspire my own.

Look, if you love A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE, and want "something like it" to read while you are waiting (and waiting, and waiting) for me to finish THE WINDS OF WINTER, you really need to check out Maurice Druon and THE ACCURSED KINGS.

I never met Druon, alas (he died only a few years ago, and I regret that I never had the chance to shake his hand), but from all reports he was an extraordinary man. He was French, highly distinguished, a resistance fighter against the Nazis, a historian, a member of the French Academy... well, you can read about his life on Wikipedia, and it makes quite a story in itself. He wrote short stories, contemporary novels, a history of Paris... and an amazing seven-volume series about King Philip IV of France, his sons and daughters, the curse of the Templars, the fall of the Capetian dynasty, the roots of the Hundred Years War. The books were a huge success in France. So huge than they have twice formed the basis for television shows (neither version is available dubbed or subtitled in English, to my annoyance), series that one sometimes hears referred to as "the French I, CLAUDIUS."

Hers the publisher's description for the first novel, The Iron King.

Accursed! Accursed! You shall be accursed to the thirteenth generation!”

The Iron King – Philip the Fair – is as cold and silent, as handsome and unblinking as a statue. He governs his realm with an iron hand, but he cannot rule his own family: his sons are weak and their wives adulterous; while his red-blooded daughter Isabella is unhappily married to an English king who prefers the company of men.

A web of scandal, murder and intrigue is weaving itself around the Iron King; but his downfall will come from an unexpected quarter. Bent on the persecution of the rich and powerful Knights Templar, Philip sentences Grand Master Jacques Molay to be burned at the stake, thus drawing down upon himself a curse that will destroy his entire dynasty…

That sounds … wonderful. It's even better because it's all based on real history. The past is an experience that we can never have or see. I love historical fictional for its ability to make the past live and breathe again. (It's not a perfect reproduction of the past, but it's far better than nothing.)

The entire series is available on Kindle, for just $45.

  1. Books 1-3: The Iron King, The Strangled Queen, The Poisoned Crown; $9.90
  2. The Royal Succession; $6.99
  3. The She-Wolf; $7.99
  4. The Lily and the Lion; $7.99
  5. The King Without a Kingdom; $11.99

Reading Idea: Children of Earth and Sky

Children of Earth and Sky

$13.99 on Kindle

I've enjoyed reading Guy Gavriel Kay ever since I read The Lions of Al-Rassan. After that, I read and loved both the Sarantine Mosaic duology (Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors) and the Under Heaven duology (Under Heaven and River of Stars). When Goodreads told me that he had a new novel coming out, I preordered it right away.

From the small coastal town of Senjan, notorious for its pirates, a young woman sets out to find vengeance for her lost family. That same spring, from the wealthy city-state of Seressa, famous for its canals and lagoon, come two very different people: a young artist traveling to the dangerous east to paint the grand khalif at his request—and possibly to do more—and a fiercely intelligent, angry woman, posing as a doctor’s wife, but sent by Seressa as a spy.

The trading ship that carries them is commanded by the accomplished younger son of a merchant family, ambivalent about the life he’s been born to live. And farther east a boy trains to become a soldier in the elite infantry of the khalif—to win glory in the war everyone knows is coming.

As these lives entwine, their fates—and those of many others—will hang in the balance, when the khalif sends out his massive army to take the great fortress that is the gateway to the western world...

This entry was tagged. Reading Ideas

Reading Idea: The Sector General Series

Zak Zyz, writing at Tor.com, clues me in to a science-fiction series that I was previously unaware of. I'm a sucker for Golden Age SF. This sounds right up my alley.

The series takes place in Sector 12 General Hospital, a sprawling 384-floor hospital space station built in order to cement a lasting peace after humanity’s disastrous first interstellar war. A notable departure from the militaristic space operas of the time, the story of Sector General is explicitly pacifistic, eschewing conquest and combat in favor of the struggle of doctors to understand and heal their alien patients.

It has diverse alien species and environments.

The Sector General series is often commended for its depiction of extraterrestrials that are more than just humans with cosmetic differences. White’s aliens are physiologically far outside of the human experience, with asymmetrical bodies, unusual metabolisms, and strange and often monstrous appearances. Critically, they are also psychologically different. Empathic Cinrusskin aliens are aggressively agreeable peacemakers as they find negative emotional radiation physically painful. Predatory Chalder become too bored to eat when given food they don’t have to chase down and devour alive. White’s aliens are bemused by the human nudity taboo, described as unique to the species.

Designed to treat patients from all the intelligent races in the galaxy, Sector General has wards that replicate living conditions for a vast array of life forms. There are murky undersea wards for the forty-foot long, armored, crocodile-like Chalder, poisonous sections for the chlorine-breathing kelplike Illensans, sub-zero wards for the crystalline methane-breathing Vosans and superheated wards near the hospital’s reactor for radiation-eating Telfi hive-mind beetles.

​And it has the tape learning, so common to the stories of the era.

Facing this incredible menagerie of patients, no doctor could be expected to know how to treat them all. On Sector General, physicians overcome this impossibility by using “educator tapes,” the stored experience of famous alien specialists which the doctors download directly into their brains. The genius psyche temporarily shares space with the doctor’s own persona and advises them as they aid patients. The process is described as intensely jarring, since the educator tapes contain not only the expertise, but the entire personality of its donor. Inexperienced doctors find themselves struggling to eat food that the taped personality disliked, suddenly enamored with members of the expert’s species to whom they wouldn’t normally be attracted, and in some cases they must struggle to maintain control of their own bodies in the face of a personality stronger than their own.

Most doctors hurriedly have their educator tapes “erased” when the emergency at hand has run its course, but some working closely with patients from another species will retain tapes for long periods. The highest ranked medical staff in the hospital are the lordly diagnosticians—senior physicians capable of permanently retaining as many as ten educator tapes in a sort of intentional multiple personality disorder.

​Most importantly:

The Sector General novels are available in omnibus editions from Tor Books.

I looked up the stories. Apparently, I can get all but two in Kindle editions.