My March Reads

Beowulf, tr. Maria Dahvana Headley Book cover - Do you even go on adventures, bro? Headley has gotten a lot of attention for her choice to translate the first word of Beowulf, “hwaet”, as “bro” (Seamus Heaney went with “so”). Come for that, sure, but stay for the awesome rollicking tale. This book has a lot in common with Christopher Logue’s All Day Permanent Red, in being an intentionally loose translation of an ancient text making ample use of modern slang, but Headley’s book just felt…cooler, more natural. It has a lot in common with “Hamilton,” somehow feeling like it “just works.” Also, like Lin-Manuel Miranda, Headley gives her verse a hip-hop sound, and doesn’t force a meter or use alliteration to a point that sounds clunky to a 21st century American ear. This is an eminently readable translation–one which I read over two days–and I always looked forward to picking it up. The “bro-y” bravado works perfectly for the setting, and also helps Headley highlight some of the more mournful aspects of the story. I thought the closing lines were just as great as the opening one: “He rode hard! He stayed thirsty! He was the man! He was the man.” The repetition of the last sentence, first with an exclamation point and then with a period, just works perfectly for the elegiac tone of the end of the poem.

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My January and February Reads

Red Plenty, Francis Spufford Book cover - An amazingly original book and probably my favorite read of the year so far. I first became interested in it based on this review. Objectively, Red Plenty consists of a series of short stories taking place in the USSR in the 1960s-70s, interspersed with a few nonfictional essays. Many of the stories focus on real historical figures (most notably, Leonid Kantorovich and Nikita Khrushchev); some on fictionalized composites based on real people (for example, Abel Aganbegyan); others on fully fictional characters who are nonetheless intended to represent some real-world class of Soviet citizen. In spirit, the book is a portrait of the period of Soviet history where it really appeared–both to Soviets and to outsiders–like the planned economy of the USSR might well outstrip capitalist economies in productivity within a couple of decades. The period it covers, following the death of Stalin, was one in which the USSR was recovering from a generation where much of its intelligentsia had been killed or sent to the gulag, and where the country was rediscovering an openness to ideas. The promise of computing is just beginning to blossom. It’s quite a sympathetically rendered portrait, and one that left me with a sort of ache for what might have been. Spufford provides copious endnotes about the sources he drew on for even minor things such as jokes–it’s an exhaustively researched book, and one that sent me down quite a few internet rabbit holes. I thought quite a bit while reading it about how much the historical existence of the USSR still shapes American politics today, yet how little I actually know about Soviet history and life. Spufford observes, in the chapter recounting the 1962 Novocherkassk massacre, that contemporaneous Soviet citizens generally knew even less about their country’s history, due to official suppression, than an American today would. If, like me, you liked the HBO Chernobyl miniseries so much that you read Svetlana Alexievich’s book, you’d probably also appreciate this one.

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Tell Me, Lady

Steerswoman cover

I said to myself, you’re an oddball. But what if the ways in which you were odd were actually the most perfect things to be for some particular situation?

I liked hiking; I loved maps; I loved science and discovery; I hated lies; I had a long gray cloak!; nothing would please me more than walking forever through the world, learning and discovering.

Rosemary Kirstein, on one of her inspirations for the Steerswoman books (Reddit AMA)

I love playing Dungeons & Dragons. And, obviously, I love reading books, very much including fantasy books. But I don’t love the genre of fantasy books that D&D grew out of. Often referred to as “sword & sorcery,” this genre has its roots in Robert Howard’s “Conan the Barbarian” stories and Fritz Leiber’s “Fafhrd & The Grey Mouser” books. Sword & sorcery is contrasted with “epic” or “high” fantasy (like Lord of the Rings), and tends to deal with grittier stories with more personal stakes, as opposed to epic tales of good and evil. Gary Gygax, D&D’s creator, was quite explicit about his preferred subgenre. For reference, look at the list of sources of inspiration gave in Appendix N of the AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide. Tolkien does appear, but I think probably more on account of The Hobbit (which is a bit more sword & sorcery) than The Lord of the Rings. In 2020, I picked up “Ill Met in Lankhmar,” Leiber’s origin story for Fafhrd & The Grey Mouser. In short, I barely made it through. The writing was terrible, with no compelling story and lots of blatant misogyny.

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Reading Year in Review, 2020

Link reading

A strange year for reading, to be sure. You might think that COVID lockdowns would provide more time for reading, but I think my total amount of reading for the year was about average. Part of this was having less time on trains and planes, which in the past has been a prime reading time for me. Part of it was also getting a Nintendo Switch; much reading time was surely sacrificed to “Breath of the Wild” (no regrets though!).

The biggest development in my reading world was finally starting this website. I already wrote a lot about my motivation for doing it in the about page, so I won’t re-hash it here. But a couple of months in, I’m feeling good about it. I’ve had the chance to write a few longer or more complex pieces that wouldn’t really have fit the mold at Goodreads, and I haven’t felt self-pressure to write more, publicize more, etc. It’s a nice place to have. Also, my decision to “take out” all my Goodreads data was totally validated by the fact that just a few weeks later, they closed down their API (the interface that lets you programatically pull down your own reading data) without any warning. So unfortunately my post about that is now obsolete, except as a historical artifact.

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My November and December Reads

The Cosmopolitan Tradition: A Noble but Flawed Ideal, Martha Nussbaum Book cover - I’m a big fan of Martha Nussbaum, and just happened to check whether she’d published anything recently. This was published in 2019, and was also relevant to my interest in reading more about justice and charity. In this book (which consists of a lecture series), she covers a very interesting topic: why does the cosmopolitan philosophical tradition, which stretches back to the Stoics and Cicero, assign duties of justice toward all other citizens of the world, but not duties of material support to those who are less well off? And can this difference be philosophically justified? Nussbaum concludes that it cannot, and her critiques of the Stoic tradition are quite interesting. I thought Nussbaum faltered in the final section, where she concludes based on fairly weak support that providing effective material aid to people in other countries is practically very difficult. I think the evidence I’ve seen contradicts this position; Nussbaum didn’t even mention GiveDirectly, which seems like the purest form of what she’s talking about, and which is seen as having a good track record. I think Nussbaum may be insufficiently open to radical critiques of the modern geopolitical status quo.

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