Friday, June 10, 2016

For a Change, Let's Talk About Actual Books (Part 20)

So, I thought to myself yesterday "boy, it's been a while since I talked about what I'm reading, hasn't it?"  Turns out it's been about nine months!  Boy, time sure gets away from you.

Anyway, I do in fact read things other than pony-themed fanfiction!  Here's what I'm reading right now, along with my thoughts to whatever point in the book I've reached.

The Tide at Sunrise: A History of the Russo-Japanese War, 1904-1905, by Denis Ashton Warner

What it is:  A history of said war, focused primarily on geopolitics and military maneuvers.

How I'm liking it so far:  The Russo-Japanese War is one of those subjects about which I know basically nothing, and this weighty tome (over 600 pages of large pages and small print!) feels extremely comprehensive without going over my head.  About a quarter of the way in, I'm only just getting to the war itself, with plenty of time being spent on the political figures, economic forces at work, and strategic considerations (China's relationship with the west, the Trans-Siberian Railroad, etc.).  I imagine that some casual readers would find this too detailed (a lot of foreign names get thrown around; I wrote out a cheat sheet), and those with more grounding in the late 1800s than I have might find that it spends too much time setting the stage for them, but this hits my personal sweet spot between in-depth and comprehensible.

Also, my favorite fact so far: the Russians used a larger gauge for their railroads (i.e. wider tracks) than was standard in other countries, specifically so that in the event of war, foreign nations wouldn't be able to use their cargo cars on tracks in captured Russian territory.  When the Japanese captured Russian tracks in Manchuria, they simply re-laid on of the tracks to their cars' specifications--then cut the rail ties, so that when the Russians later reclaimed the territory, they were unable to change them back without first bringing in new ties.

...The Russians don't come off very well in this war, is what I'm trying to say.

Recommendation:  If, like me, you're looking for a comprehensive entry point into this war, I highly recommend this book.  It's probably too dense for casual reading, however--this is "accessable," but not accessable, if you understand me.

Between You and I: a little book of (bad) english, by James Cochrane

What it is:  A dictionary-style look at, to quote the dust jacket, the "'half-educated' language used by people in the mistaken belief that speaking or writing in their natural idiom is somehow less 'correct.'"

How I'm liking it so far:  Essentially a word-by-word analysis of what "rules" of the English language are actually important, or at least grounded in historical precedent ("amount" and "number" oughtn't be used interchangeably), and which... aren't (ending a sentence with a preposition isn't the sin you may have been taught it was in grade school), this book mostly sticks to common axioms and advice, but has a pleasantly conversational tone.  The style also lends itself to pick-up-put-down reading, which is a plus for me: it's important to have one or two books on hand which one can read at short, unpredictable intervals.  Well, it's important to me, anyway, and it's the primary reason that I haven't set this aside yet as "fine, but stuff I already know."

Recommendation:  This would be a good choice for people who aren't entirely sure what language-rules are actually important, but are still looking for something that's fun to read in and of itself.  There's not a lot of new stuff for the language enthusiast here, though.

The Only Rule Is It Has to Work, by Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller

What it is:  The story of two analytics podcasters who (kind-of, sort-of) took over a minor league baseball team for a year, to (kind-of, sort-of) see what a pair of statheads could do with a real team.

How I'm liking it so far:  Okay, if you don't know anything about sports, here's the really short version: starting around the turn of the century, certain sports people started using so-called "advanced stats"--previously unused measures of athletic performance, some complex enough that they were made possible only by the proliferation of stat-tracking and the ubiquity of modern computers--to upend a number of traditional interpretations of what qualities one should look for in various athletes at various positions in various sports.  A lot of old, cranky people didn't/don't like being told that they've been playing/watching/understanding the game wrong all along.

There, now you're caught up on the analytics wars.  Baseball was and is at the forefront of it, by the way, with other sports lagging various distances behind.  Anyway, this billed itself as a book about getting to try all the really crazy things that statheads are pretty sure would work, if they could just convince managers to try them.  Instead, it ends up being more about the messy realities of running a baseball team so far from "major league" that decisions are made more with an eye to remaining financially solvent than toward winning per se.  Now, it's a breezy, often fascinating look at that, and Ben and Sam do come up with a few novel ideas... but I'm over halfway through, and so far, this has mostly been a story about their big ideas being thwarted by an apathetic team, a semi-hostile manager, and the realities of running a team.

Recommendation:  If you don't care about baseball at all, you can safely give this one a pass: there's more than "sports" here, but not so much more as to be worth it to the non-sport-inclined.  But if a semi-comic, slightly self-depreciating look at what goes on in, around, and behind the dugout sounds interesting to you, then consider this highly recommended.

The Celestia Code, by iisaw

What it is:  The print version of a fanfic I reviewed some while back.

How I'm liking it so far:  Okay, getting this in the mail yesterday (as I type this) is what made me think about book reviews, since now I can cheat and review fanfic even in a post that isn't about fanfic!

 As far as construction goes, it's somewhat higher-quality than I expected for the price (under $20, with shipping).  It's definitely thin paper and light ink, but it doesn't smear, the pages don't seem to tear easily from normal handling, and the binding hasn't immediately cracked--the latter is my go-to "this is too cheap for me" judgement.

Not a fan of the typeface (the x's and y's, especially), but... oh god, I'm turning into the kind of person who complains about typeface.

Anyway, this is a slightly cleaned-up version of the story I reviewed, so there's not a lot more to say about it.  It's a pleasantly low-demand re-read--that is to say, it's something I can read without putting a lot of mental energy into it, and still enjoy.  A benefit of knowing the story in advance, I suppose!

Recommendation:  Since I've already addressed recommending the story previously, let me make a recommendation about the book itself: at its price point and construction quality, I'd recommend it to fans who'd like to have some published ponyfiction as worth the price.  I wouldn't buy it without having read at least enough of The Celestia Code on FiMFic to be sure that you want a copy, though.  Luckily, you can do that!  So... do that, if you're thinking about it.


  1. Hey, I helped with that last one! :D

    Also, I read "statheads" as "shitheads", which gave me a MUCH different idea of what that book was about.

    1. Sounds like a Freudian slip. ~Super Trampoline

  2. Thanks for the re-review/plug, Chris!

    I'm going to check out that first book if I can find a cheap copy. Most of the ones on/through Amazon are ridiculously expensive!

    1. I got my copy from the library, like a good cheapskate; I wonder why it's so pricey? I mean, I'm sure it's out of print, but still, you wouldn't think demand for a doorstopper about the Russo-Japanese War would outstrip demand by THAT much...

      Glad you liked the re-review!

    2. Oops! You were right to complain about the font! That is a mistake on Lulu's part. More info here:

  3. Got my copy of The Celestia Code right before work on Friday. Had to explain to my brother that I actually bought fanfiction. I'll second Chris' recommendation (now iisaw can say it's been approved by two Chrises!), as it's in my "Favourites" and was only $14. Also, the physical format's absolutely perfect for all those footnotes

    Between You and I sounds like my kind of book. Does it have anything to say about "ain't"? I've always felt it gets too much hate, mostly because it's so often misused. As an irregular contraction of "am not", it's a great addition to the English language

    As for my own reading, I've been pretty far behind lately, but I have started Characteristics of Games by George Skaff Elias, Richard Garfield and K. Robert Gutschera. So far, it seems like a great introduction to analyzing games independent of any outside context

    1. No "ain't" here! The book goes straight from agenda ("[historical context omitted] since no one nowadays admits to having only a singular agendum and since agenda has come to mean 'a list of things requiring being done or discussed' it is not really surprising that agenda has become a singular noun whose plural is agendas") to alibi ("[historical context omitted] the word is often used as if it meant simply 'an excuse, a pretext' but should not be").