jml's notebook

A reading update

Here are some books I've read recently.

I'm trying to flush out my @unblogged collection on my Kindle.

I was hoping to get them all done, but the children are screaming, the laundry is rotting, and I must off to the data mines.


Axiom's End, Lindsay Ellis

The blurb says "Arrival meets Three-Body Problem", but I think it's more "Pocahontas (Disney) meets Transformers, but with brain and heart".

Quite an enjoyable read. It was a bit weird reading something so obviously situated in mid-2000s California -- doesn't everybody know that London is the correct setting for novels? -- but the weirdness soon passed as the story got going.

A Memory Called Empire, Arkady Martine

I bounced off this twice. The prose in the opening prologue is almost stereotypically bad sci-fi, brimming with made-up words and attempts at poetry:

In Teixcalaan, these things are ceaseless: star-charts and disembarkments.

I was exhausted on both of these failed attempts, so when I tried the third time I went for the audiobook version. I am really glad I persisted.

The opening sentence is, charitably, courageous, but after getting into the book I can see why the author went for it. The empire that the author builds is excellent, and you can see echoes not just of Byzantium (her specialty) but also Rome, China, and Britain.

The story is also quite engaging. It's hard to do court intrigue well, and Martine pulls it off. Sometimes it can feel a bit like a Raymond Chandler plot--when things feel dull have a guy with a gun show up--but the book isn't held together by the plot, but rather by the main character's journey to figure out who she is in the context of empire.

As a very minor point of critique, you are only allowed to use the word "synechdoche" once in a novel.


Thinking in Systems, Donella H. Meadows

I read this book so I could learn how to read and draw systems diagrams, and so I knew what people were talking about when they talked about systems thinking.

It definitely achieved that goal, although I suspect that many of the people talking about systems thinking don't know what they're talking about.

I went away from it wanting to draw diagrams of all sorts of things: weight loss, app subscription businesses, language learning, but it turns out that all of these involve actual thinking. She made it look so easy!

Another thing I like about the book is her pragmatic approach to capitalism. Nothing can grow exponentially forever, and yet our economic world is predicated on just that. At the same time, markets are great self-regulating systems for all sorts of things. I don't want to get all on you, but there doesn't seem to be a huge amount of space in the discourse for "markets are great when you have good price signals and can solve the strong-get-stronger problem, but maybe not everything can or should have price signals?".

Oh well, we can live in hope.

Nevertheless, despite my Marxist rantings above, the book really isn't political. I'd recommend it to anyone who wants another tool in their belt for thinking about systems of any kind.

SPQR, Mary Beard

I listened to this one as an audiobook, as my infant son gives me plenty of time where I have no free hands but plenty of headspace.

The only appropriate word is magisterial. This is a phenomenal book. It's scholarly and rigorous while being solidly entertaining. Reading it will teach you things not just about Rome but also about history and how it's done.

The audiobook is read by the second poshest-sounding woman in England (after Her Majesty), and that's all to the good.