Wednesday, June 4, 2014

For a Change, Let's Talk About Actual Books (Part 13)

This week being what it is, I've done relatively little reading for pleasure.  Granted, it's still around an hour a day, but it's remarkably little by my normal measure.  But that doesn't stop me from being in the middle of a number of things all at once.  Let's take a glimpse at what my non-ponyfic reading material looks like at the moment, shall we?

Notably not included: the newest Dresden Files book, Skin Game.  While I enjoy the series, I don't quite "shell out 20-30 bucks for the hardcover" love it.  And sadly, I forgot to put an early reserve in for it at the library, so it looks like I'll be waiting until I move up the list or the paperback comes out, whichever comes first.  Still, other books!  Below the break.

11th Month 11th Day 11th Hour, by Joseph Persico

What it is: A history of World War One, focusing particularly on the gap between the signing of the armistice and its going into effect.

How I'm liking it so far:  It being the WWI centenary, I felt like something WWI-related was appropriate, and I've nearly finished this one.  The book is primarily about one of the most horrific episodes of the war: how many allied commanders, knowing full well when the armistice would take effect but hoping to secure political favor, win glory, or just punish their foes a little more, continued to order large-scale offensive operations right up until the moment it took effect.  To tell this story, Persico skips around quite a bit, covering the entire war from the perspectives of dozens of soldiers.  The effect is sometimes disjointed--although the actions of the allied leaders in those last hours frankly speaks for itself, the author doesn't build up to it so much as provide a ground-level overview of the conflict, interspersed with and concluding with the book's nominal focus.

Recommendation:  Anyone looking for a soldier's-eye look a the Great War, and an examination of how such a callous decision can be made, should give this a try.  Readers looking for something more in-depth might find this a little too wide-ranging, though.

The Dune Encyclopedia, by Willis E. McNelly

What it is:  An in-universe collection of information about the universe of (the first four of) Frank Herbert's Dune books, compiled several thousand years after the Atredies family ruled.

How I'm liking it so far:  I read this years ago and loved it, and a recent conversation with a friend about what Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson are doing to the "franchise" these days made me remember how much better this "authorized guide" was than anything they'd ever written, so I tracked down a copy and have dived back into it.

I absolutely love this book, precisely because it raises so many more questions than it answers, and because almost all of its content is great worldbuilding material, but filtered through enough historical uncertainty that the reader can interpret things as he chooses.  What I'm trying to say is, this is an absolutely amazing example of in-universe writing.

Recommendation:  This doesn't stand independent of the Dune books, and its canonicity is questionable despite Frank Herbert's involvement and explicit approval.  But if you're a Dune fan, you absolutely owe it to yourself to beg, borrow, or steal a copy of this book.

Oh, and apparently there have been multiple attempts by fans and McNelly to get this re-printed, but Brian Herbert's made sure it doesn't happen, presumably because so much of it directly contradicts his stuff.  As if I needed one more reason to seethe...

The Dictionary of the Khazars, by Milorad Pavic

What it is:  An encyclopedia-style history of an imaginary people, divided into three different, complimentary "dictionaries."

How I'm liking it so far:  Tracking down The Dune Encyclopedia somehow reminded me how much I liked this story (the only thing they really have in common is being composed of encyclopedia-style entries), which I picked up from the library many years ago on a whim--I'd never even heard of the author at the time--and which sucked me right in.  So, I tracked down a copy of it, too, and re-reading it has also been a lot of fun.  It's a fascinating mix of history, fantasy, theology, and even a little occult adventure, and while it occasionally edges way too close to "pretentious" (I'm not sure if this is entirely the author's fault; with translated stories, it's always difficult to tell), it justifies itself by having the depth to back up what would otherwise be unbearable excesses in the prose and philosophizing.

Recommendation:  Definitely worth checking out for a unique writing experience, this story demands a lot of the reader--there are plenty of things I'm noticing for the first time as I re-read this (the first time I read it, I plowed through linearly.  This time, I'm skipping around to related entries.  I don't recommend one way over the other, particularly (the author encourages the reader to read it however he wishes), but the experience is definitely a different one).  Anyone who's not afraid of piecing this puzzle of a story together will likely find that there's a lot to get out of this--as much as you're willing to put in.

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, by Phillip Pullman

What it is:  A retelling of the New Testament story, the twist being that "Jesus" and "Christ" are two different people.

How I'm liking it so far:  I know that description doesn't give a lot of information about the tone of the work--it could easily be a comedy from that--so to be clear, this is a serious work.  It's pretty transparently Pullman's parable of the relationship between Christianity's nominal tenants and its practices, but to be fair, it doesn't pretend to be anything else.  While it's too bluntly obvious in places, I'm halfway through and still interested.

Recommendation:  Readers who aren't afraid of polemics might find this of interest, and it's pleasantly readable and story-driven enough to keep one invested.  That said, folks who are averse to Pullman's occasionally aggressive beliefs might find the presentation here too off-putting to immerse themselves in.

Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea, by Charles Seife

What it is:  The history of the number zero, from its first conception in Babylon to the modern day.

How I'm liking it so far:  The topic is one I'd really like to like, but the presentation here is way too melodramatic for me.  I mean, there is a lot of drama around the idea of zero, at least in the ancient world--the Pythagoreans, in a very real if specific sense, didn't believe in zero--but Seife still manages to stretch out cliffhangers, dramatic pronouncements, and the like to a tiresome degree.  I think I'll probably finish this one regardless, because the information here is both interesting and otherwise well-presented, but the drama is awfully grating.

Recommendation:  Some people handle scientists' and historians' portentousness better than others; if you're one of those people, this is a well-researched look at the history of, literally, nothing.  If you're like me, though, you might be happier finding another book on the subject.


  1. Ah good, I'd have had to skip this one if you were reviewing Skin Game. :B I'm about 100 pages in, myself. (Gone are the days when I could just sit down over a weekend and read a Dresden book cover to cover, but it's also something of a slow burn.)

    That dictionary sounds interesting, I'll have to check that out sometime.

  2. >Christianity's nominal tenants

    Hm. Is it rent-controlled?

  3. Too bad that the Dune book is so hard to find. The cheapest seller on Amazon that ships internationally is asking for 30 US$!

  4. Khazars were quite real, actually. (Though I don't know whether Pavic's Khazars have much to do with the historical ones.)