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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Effective Giving, Reparative Giving

Decolonizing Wealth (Villanueva) and “Reparative Justice” (Cordelli)

Book cover

Yet…how often is it called altruism when sacrifices are made by people from whom we assume and expect selflessness? We don’t call it altruism when a mother stays awake all night by her child’s bedside. We don’t even call it altruism when a home care worker stays way beyond overtime, until the hurricane has blown over, to ensure the safety of her elderly charge. We expect certain kinds of people to make sacrifices. Apparently we reserve the term altruism for the privileged, fortunate, entitled people for whom self-sacrifice is a stretch, is unexpected.

Edgar Villanueva, Decolonizing Wealth (p. 152)

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My September and October Reads

Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio, Pu Songling Book cover1 - I learned about this through the Twitter feed of Jeannette Ng (author of Under The Pendulum Sun which I read last Spooktober). Occasionally she will post one-tweet plot summaries of old Chinese short “weird tales” that were collected and anthologized by writers like Pu. Her summaries always make me laugh and the plots often revolve around risque topics in a way that surprised me for writings from the 17th-18th centuries. (Example: “The mysterious case of wandering corpses. This culminates in the officials realizing that the dead were just sneaking out to bang in the wilderness and thus they cremated the two lovebirds together.”) The stories also mostly involve ghosts and/or fox spirits, so I thought it would be a fun Spooktober read. For the most part, the stories are meant to be funny or entertaining more than scary. I found this collection to be really accessible and to embody the kind of earthy style I was hoping to find in the Zhuangzi but felt that I didn’t. Perhaps it’s just the fact that these stories are like a millennium more recent, or that they’re not burdened by also trying to convey some particular philosophy. It’s like the Canterbury Tales, but with more ghosts!

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