It’s the twentieth anniversary of an attack upon the United States, the details and legacy you’re already familiar with. If you weren’t, I’m sure there’s no shortage of offerings today. Rather than dwell on the mistakes of the past, I’d like to share some photos celebrating the WTC — the buildings, while never aesthetically pleasing, have gained a retrospective beauty now that they’re gone, and my sadness at having never gotten to see them in all their physicality manifests itself in my tendency to collect any photograph I can find of them, particularly of the interior. I take no credit for any of these — I’ve squirreled them away across the span of 20 years, so citing sources is impossible.
If you’re interested, there are some videos on YouTube displaying other people’s collections. I’m including one below as an example.
For those interested in the life of Greece and Rome beyond senatorial politics and agricultural policy, Naked States offers an absolutely entertaining and unexpectedly detailed look at various aspects of Greco-Roman culture. At first glance, the text is simply a series of essays, written in response to questions — some specific, some general, but this is no dry catechesis. Ryan’s lively explanations run cut cross not only the world of the Greek city-states and the Roman realm, but make occasional forays into Persia and Egypt, as well, illustrating how no part of the classical world existed in a vacuum. The essays end with what the author cheekily frames as an ‘irresponsible short’ history of the classical world for anyone who needs a little context. In short, for those with any interest in the goings-on of Greeks and Romans, this is an absolute delight.
It’s almost impossible to do justice to the variety of content contained herein. Although Ryan’s approach isn’t as tightly organized something like the Gies‘ Daily Life in a Medieval Village, or Ian Mortimer’s wide-ranging social histories of England, it nevertheless succeeds in offering a panoramic view into Greek and Roman life, across classes. Each question opens an entire avenue of consideration: “Were gladiators really fat?” for instance, is answered in an essay covering the entire scope of gladiatorial games in Rome, with an extra focus on their diet. Given how much more information is available about the emperors and upper classes, there’s a slight preponderance of patrician topics, but this isn’t a book just about the aristocrats. Some of its more memorable offerings include a comparative study of how nudism was treated in the classical world, a history of how our delightfully composite calendar got that way, a consideration of slavery in Greco-Roman societies, a survey of how Roman buildings were treated as the western order gave way (plundered, mostly, even the emperor’s tombs), and a comparison of sporting events in both Greece and Rome. (The Romans found the Greek obsession with the Olympics a little weird, except for Nero — he insisted on hosting his own games, in which he ‘competed’ — and won in a chariot race despite falling out of the the chariot and finishing third). Ryan provides a skillful mix of useful, general info and more interesting-but esoteric content, with just enough humor to make it playful but not so much that it veers toward the trivial.
Coming up: The War that Made the Roman Empire, Ben Kane’s Eagles at War, and some stuff that’s not related to Rome followed by more stuff that’s related to Rome (hopefully). I have both CC and TBR I can tie in to a Roman focus so don’t be surprised if the togas and legions take over in September.
Paxton used to be a man with a promising idea, one that was flourishing in the market — but then The Cloud said “Lower your prices”. The Cloud wasn’t the voice of God, floating in the heavens — but it almost might as well been in the United States, for no merchandiser could hope to find any market whatsoever that The Cloud, Inc didn’t already control. Now he’s a spirit-broken peon, newly employed by The Cloud as a security guard. And….things are about to get a lot worse. One of his fellow new hires, Zinnia, has started work at the Cloud with the sole intent of gathering intelligence on it for her mysterious employers; there has to be a weakness in its systems somewhere they can exploit, and she’s technically savvy and borderline sociopathic, with a gift for manipulating people. Assigned as a warehouse grunt, the frustrated Zinnia sees in lovestruck Paxton the perfect dupe to gain access into the warehouse’s nether regions. This begins this dark look into the very possible future of the United States, where the speculation is solely in the tech used –for the author references abuses already committed by Amazon and Walmart, our friendly neighborhood leviathans.
The Warehouse isn’t just a warehouse: The Cloud operates through massive artificial cities, fully enclosed, which it calls MotherClouds. These massive structures are storage and shipping hubs for the company, but they also have dormitories for their workers, independent power plants, medical facilities, and a promenade that functions rather like a mall. The company town has been resurrected, with all the peonage and debt slavery that that system once entailed. The Cloud enjoys enormous political cloud thanks to its deep pockets and “green initiatives”: its plants, it boasts, are solely run by green power, and thanks to eliminating transportation costs for 30 million people (its peasant-workers, tracked by armband and color-coded by work type so no one can get themselves lost) , it even claims to be on the verge of being carbon-negative. No one is in a position to stop them: most of the world is struggling with flooding coastlines and massive population disruption, so it’s almost nice that someone, somewhere, seems to be so hypercompetent at what they do. Nevermind the fact they’ve built a creepy dystopia where everyone is watched despite a lack of cameras, where human beings are treated like cogs in a factory — interchangeable parts packaging and moving interchangeable parts.
The most chilling part of The Warehouse is that it’s not….entirely fictional. Take the warehouse system, for instance, in which workers are guided to bins by an electronic gadget giving them instructions, where they spend ten hours a day constantly running back and forth, dodging robots that are moving crates, continually judged by their fill quotient. This is literally happening: it was described in Nomadland by Jessica Bruder, when she joined members of Amazon’s “CamperForce” — mobile workers who work for seasons in Amazon’s own warehouse. The monopsonic ways of both Walmart and Amazon — their power to dictate prices to merchandisers, and thus distort market demand just as drug cartels or governments do — and their destruction of small firms that won’t kowtow to them has been documented in books like Cheap: The High Price of Discount Culture. Cheap (orThe Walmart Effect, it’s been years) literally mentions a pickle company that was bullied by Walmart, just as another pickle company is bullied here. The only fictional aspects are the characters, very nearly.
As a warning, The Warehouse is creepy and captures the dreary monotony of the daily grind, while at the same time steadily driving forward — the reader wondering who Zinnia is working for, just what is hidden in the underground of the MotherCloud, and when poor Paxton is going to have his heart broken further by his new friend. Although it’s mostly grim, with a possible glimmer of hope at the future, those who enjoy near-future stories or those fascinated by the prospects of tyranny-by-corporation will enjoy it.
Yesterday I made the mistake of having a sinus headache, and in our Brave New World of Perpetual Hypochondria, I was ordered to the doctor’s office to have my nose jabbed in search of the dreaded Beer Bug. To no one’s surprise (though to my slight disappointment, as I could do with ten days in quarantine), I was announced clear. Anyhoo, I finished three Steinbeck short works and made solid progress on How Emotions are Made before my poor battery died in the Artic wastes of the waiting room.
The Moon is Down, which I’d scheduled to read the week of July 20 as a reference to the moon landing (in conjunction with The First Men in the Moon, Jules Verne), proved to have nothing whatsoever to do with the moon. Written in 1942, it’s set in an un-named town with a coal mind and some unexpected German tourists — they’ve arranged a mostly-unchallenged occupation of the town, thanks to the help of a sympathizer who paved the way. The sympathizer expects the occupation to go smoothly, since the people are a pacifistic lot who haven’t had to fight in decades, but both the mayor and the leader of the occupation know better. There is nothing more dangerous than a people accustomed to freedom suddenly having it taken away — and sure enough, a rebellion soon follows. Although the short novel does not tell the entire story of the resistance, it’s in full flower as we depart. The novella has sympathetic characters all around, even the German majordomo — a surprising touch given the tense times in which it was written.
The Pearl is a tragedy that I read several times in high school, and concerns a poor fisherman with an ailing son who discovers what he believes to be the Pearl of the World — an extraordinarily large, captivatingly black pearl. Although he can see nothing in the Pearl but a reversal of fortune — money to save his son, to send him to school, even to buy a rifle! — his wife is more conflicted, seeing too what dangers such a Pearl might bring them. When the fisherman attempts to sell his find in the marketplace and finds that the buyers have conspired to offer him insultingly low prices, things disintegrate fast, and we can only remember Tyler Durden’s warning — the things you own end up owning you.”
The Red Pony is shorter still, and is a series of stories about a young boy being mentored — directly, when his prize pony takes ill, and more indirectly when he meets an interesting character in the wilderness. At this point in the afternoon I was mostly concerned with trying not to succumb to hypothermia and didn’t get a great deal out of the story.
We’re now at 11/12 categories filled. All I need now is a bit of brains!
Classics Club Strikes Back: Climbing Mount Doom
…hey, I read lot of books in August. Just….not ones I’m supposed to be reading.
The Unreviewed: Seeking Christendom: An Augustinian Defense of Western Civilization, Brad Birzer. Still may say something about this; it’s Birzer’s original approach at offering a tribute to several mid-century defenders of the west, in an age of factories, states, and armed ideologies. The approach created several daughter works, including Beyond Tenebrae and Birzer’s biographies of Russell Kirk and Christopher Dawson, two of his subjects here.
Please Stop Helping Us, Jason Riley. Riley examines ways that DC’s policies designed to help black Americans are indirectly undermining them, much as Thomas Sowell or Walter Williams did in their own professional careers. (I keep forgetting to finish and post my review of Williams’ American Contempt for Liberty, which has a heavily focus on the failures of education policies and the black community. These may pair nicely together..)
Like a River Flows. A young author’s tribute to her grandmother, offered as reflective essays and letters written to her. The author is currently teaching in my town, and I suspect she may be invited to host a Lunch at the Library, so I wanted to read her book in case anyone asked about it. I thought it was sweet.
Unread Purchases: The Warehouse, Rob Hart. The Circle meets Amazon. The Metatropolis, edited by John Scalzi. An anthology of SF stories set in The City of The Future. Found while looking for new Scalzi titles.
Plans for September: I’ve got 4 more netgalley titles (two science, two history), so they’ll come first, and then I really need to bunker down on some TBR and Classics Club stuff. The science focus in August helped me very-nearly finish off the Science Survey, and I would have done had I not been distracted by Brad Birzer, The Unbroken Thread, and some Roman fiction.
Young Tribune Cato and his grizzled enlisted mentor Macro have come a long way together, from the dismal bogs of Britannia to the even more dismal desert wastes of the eastern border. Across the Euphrates stands Rome’s worthiest enemy, Parthia, and though momentarily distracted by a little internal fracas, it won’t be long before the great powers are at each other’s throats once more. Hoping to delay the outbreak of war, Cato’s general sends him forth on a suicide mission — to cross into Parthia, arrange an meeting with King Vologases, and strike a peace treaty that will give Rome time to better prepare its forces. Cato and Macro, who have thrived as a pair, covering each other’s limitations with their respective strengths, are now isolated: while Cato journeys into the unknown, Macro is charged with leading a force of soldiers into the mountains to put down a rebellion from some insignificant little upstart city. Both soldiers of Rome will soon find themselves in the most desperate of straits. Traitors of Rome marks (for me) a triumphant return of some old characters to a new front.
I read the first few Cato and Marco books, set in the conquest of Britain, but lost interest in the constant tribal politics the Romans had to maneuver through to make steady progress; Traitors is set fifteen years after our first meeting with the boys, and they’ve both grown much. The gangly young boy-turned-officer Cato is now an accomplished commander in the prime of his life, with a young son and a broken heart; his mentor Macro is newly married and beginning to wonder if he shouldn’t leave the life of the legion behind to settled down with the Mrs and tend to a farm somewhere. For the time being, both have more pressing matters on their minds: Macro’s expedition into the mountains goes sideways after a broken bridge traps most of his supplies on the wrong side of a river from him, and an aggressive response by the rebels forces his men to bunker down for a brutal winter siege. Cato fares no better, traveling into Parthia alongside an untrustworthy Greek aide who takes a perverse delight in spinning tales (I mentally pictured him as Andrew Robinson, given his Garak-ness), surrounded by Parthians who regard them not as honored ambassadors, but oafish spies. Both men’s character is taxed to the utmost, making Traitors the most memorable Eagles book I’ve read to date. Since the two friends are separated for most of the book, there’s little of the usual humor that comes in their mutual joshing, and between the siege and —- well, another plot development — things get darker than usual. The book is replete with varied battle scenes, though, as the Romans fight across Parthia’s widely-changing landscape.
I shall definitely look forward to more of the boys’ adventures in the east!
Within the last month I’ve read two somewhat related titles: No More Mr. Nice Guy and The Unplugged Alpha, both mens-interest books but with different tones. No More Mr. Nice Guy is written by a psychologist who treats men trapped in self-defeating behavior. He defines a “Nice Guy” as one who lives solely for the pleasure and approval of others, and believes that this enervating condition is brought on by abandonment issues in childhood, and the stigma of growing up male in environments now dominated by women – the home and school, primarily. Constantly castigated for being too rowdy, uninterested in passive education, etc, boys internalize guilt and deny their own worth as people. The author urges men to embrace their own value, to assess how much of what they believe, pursue, and value is honestly their goals and how much they only pursue because they’ve been told they have to. Learning this lesson is important not only to do justice to one’s self, but to create genuine relationships with people: Mr. Nice Guys are invariably unhappy and manipulative, and frequently fail in both romance and life in general. The book is replete with breaking-free exercises to reestablish one’s sense of self and to pursue a life that is personally meaningful. Having read The Virtue of Selfishness, which is that lesson on steroids, I found this a helpful reminder, and presumably one useful to men stuck in self-loathing ruts.
Richard Cooper’s The Unplugged Alpha is….rather different, summarizing an entrepreneur-turned-life coach’s approach to his own life and the clients he advises. Cooper’s “Entrepreneurs in Cars” channel began by interviewing self-made businessmen who talked about paths to success while showing off the fruits of their labor. Following a brutal divorce and a successive failure in another close relationship, Cooper branched out into discussing the types of women it was best to avoid: his channel has subsequently grown in that direction, focusing on guiding men to investing in themselves, regarding marriage and longterm relationships as useful only in some circumstances – when children are desired, for instance ,or if a man finds a woman who is a genuine complement to his life, and doesn’t seek to take it over. Cooper believes in invariable conflict and tension between the sexes: we live, he argues, in a female-first social structure, in which men are regarded as expendable. Just as men treat women as sex objects, so too do women treat men as success objects: they are guided by a hypergamous instinct, hunting for the best of men and uninterested in the rest until they themselves have begun losing their own appeal as partners. This instinct, Cooper argues, means that women have no qualms about dropping a long-term partner to trade up, just as older and wealthier men are known for dropping aging wives for younger models. Men should thus conduct themselves with caution, he advises, avoiding some women altogether – party girls, women with children, women with father issues – and treat others with wariness, making sure that when a woman enters the picture, she is there as a partner to better one’s position and not someone who expects to be treated as a prize to be treasured and put on a pedestal. To that end, Cooper urges men to continually work on themselves, to maximize their potential and take care of their health– not only will they be happier, but it will empower them in their relationships, knowing they can always pick up another partner if one proves obnoxious. Although I enjoy some parts of Cooper’s channel, particularly his admonitions to avoid “loser talk” (enfeebling literature/shows/ideas that promote the idea that one’s problems are always someone else’s fault, and that one is always powerless ), the book was too focused on sex and pick-up theory for me. I liked the “Take responsibility for your life and stop complaining about other people” part, though – but one can get that through Peterson or Rand without the obsessive focus on sex and supercars. Next year I may pick Sex at Dawn: Why We Mate and Why we Stray, which Cooper quotes, as my anthropological read to compare his use of its analysis to the facts-as-stated in the book.
Related: Men on Strike: Why Men are Boycotting Marriage, Fatherhood, and the American Dream, Helen Smith. I read this a few months back but have yet to finish my review of it.
In 1959, Soviet Russia shocked the world, and especially its rival the United States, by launching an artificial satellite into orbit. Sputnik-I’s monotone beeping was the starting gun of the space race, a competition the United States would begin to take far more seriously – as it would the threat of its rival across the oceans. But while the powers in DC viewed the Soviet Union’s space program as an obvious military threat, Turbett argues that the Soviet Union longed for peace and pursued the space program to demonstrate what men united under a common ideal, working together, could accomplish. Although Turbett gives the Soviet Union in general, and both Stalin and Kruschev in particular, more pacific intentions than their records suggest, Soviets in Space is a rare look into the Russian space program that offers extensive cultural background info which connects the drive to the cosmos with Soviet aspirations closer to Earth.
The book begins by attempting to channel the mindset of the average Russian, molded by a generation of Soviet culture – their exhaustion by war, their pride in having beaten back the Wehrmacht, their optimism in creating a new society despite its bloody flaws. (The author does not dismiss the gulags, the purges, etc – but they aren’t dwelt upon, and the best of intentions is often assumed, even when acknowledging Stalin’s effective annexation of eastern Europe.) Following a history of the entire Cold War, which Turbett posits owed entirely to western inflation of the Soviet threat, forcing Stalin and his successors to focus on defensive & counter-offensive capabilities, we shift back to the fifties, and the efforts of Soviet and American authorities to put German rocketery to work. The Russians had more experience with weaponizing rocketry during World War, having tinkered with rocket-propelled explosives and exploring the possibilities of rocket-driven aircraft. Despite this, Turbett argues that the Russians saw the space rivalry not as a military competition, but a cultural one – one that could prove the peaceful aims and superior methods of the Soviet command economy. Turbett connects the public promotion of the drive for the Moon with similarly grand programs that unfolded in the fifties and sixties, the Virgin Lands attempt to double Soviet agricultural production and the Baikal-Amur Mainline, a transcontinental railroad running across permafrost and near the Chinese border. (The BAM would not be completed and fully open until…..1991, just in time for the Communist party to be declared illegal and the Soviet Union dissolve into history.) Although these projects were all financially problematic given their massive scope and marginal returns, the three together tell a story, Turbett writes: the Russian people honestly believed they were building the future.
I’ve only encountered the Russian program in bits and pieces (Two Sides of the Moon, Alexei Leonov’s memoir co-written with David Scott, being the only substantial Soviet account I’ve tried), so this is my first time encountering a lot of this content. I suspect, however, that even if I read other volumes focused on the Soviet space program, this one will stand out for its tone, which is as charitable but not blind to faults, and its welcome study of how the space program shaped Soviet culture, from consumer collectibles to music. My meeting the figures in the Soviet program — not just Gagarin and Koralev, but those who died, like Komarov — was long overdue, and I’m grateful to Turbetts for having provided this tribute to their memory.
For the better part of a year, Jack Lark has been drifting across the war-worn South, working small jobs as he needs and generally avoiding society. For most of his adult life, he’s been a soldier, albeit one sometimes for hire — having served in the French Foreign Legion, as well as foreign powers the world over, like an Indian prince. Most recently he came to the United States to deliver a letter for a fallen friend, and found his homeland’s daughter country engaged in its own fracas, with its bitter feud already nearing three years old. The North’s naval blockade of Southern trade has created something of an opportunity for Jack, though, a job helping to escort a wagon train of cotton worth its weight in gold to the Mexican town of Matamoros. Standing between him and a year’s fortune are the Texas cavalry, which has a tendency to engage in independent taxation of trade routes; rival smugglers, who want a monopoly; Mexican bandits; and the French army, presently attempting to conquer Mexico to make the Empire gran again. It’s….going to be a bloodbath, full of treachery and deceit across a wind-whipped sun-baked landscape.
The Lost Outlaw is ninth in the Jack Lark series, and it’s…darker than ever, with an already thoroughly dispirited Jack being constantly betrayed and put in danger, and surviving through wit, luck, and the occasional act of honor made by someone who isn’t him. These are vanishingly rare because the trope of the lawless, bloody west is being delivered to full effect here, with Jack embroiled in one desperate grapple after another. Although I’ve enjoyed this series enormously so far, and was especially drawn to this one because of the setting, here the constant stream of treachery, near-death, and by-the-skin-of-his-teeth salvation wore me out, frankly. I was relieved when Collard introduced some characters who weren’t total scumbags. The book had its moments, though; Jack mentoring a young man in desperate straits, and the constant comedy provided by Jack wandering through southern Texas and Mexico and asking his chums if they had any tea.
Unrelated, but because I had the song lodged in my head the entire time I was reading this:
What’s Eating the Cosmos tackles some of the big questions in modern cosmology, beginning with the basics — how do we know what’s out there? Where is it, what is it made of? — and continuing onward to the more changing questions, those which stretch the limits of our imagination. Although Davies is dealing with heady topics, including the plausibility of time travel, the evaluation of the universe’s fate, and even why we have matter at all. Although I can’t pretend to fully understand all of the subjects discussed — relativity and quantum mechanics are demanding topics, to say the least — Davies’ writing is lucid, using clear illustrations, and provides an outline education that allows the reader to come away with a sense of having a better idea of the shape and fate of the universe.
Hurricane Lizardsand Plastic Squid caught my eye immediately, not only for its title but for its subject: climate change biology. Although humans have the ability to escape within our heads and pretend things which are happening aren’t, really, plants and other animals live much closer to Earth and cannot remove themselves from facts. When faced with the threat of climate change, they must either move, adapt, or die. I have previously read of how some plants and animals have adapted to intense environmental challenges created by human activity (Unnatural Selection), was eager to dive into this one. Given the complexities of global ecosystems, it’s not surprising to learn that altered circumstances are throwing things into disarray: one potentially disastrous trend is inducing mismatches between plant blooms and the re-emergence of their pollinators. The struggle for survival is not a recent development, though, and both flora and fauna alike are altering themselves to survive: starfish are withering in the warming waters of the Eastern seaboard, but now able to expand into northern waters once too frigid for their tolerance. At least a quarter of the Earth’s animal population is actively on the move, changing its ranges, and possibly up to 80% of populations are in flux. Plants, too, are getting in on the action – trees moving their ranges uphill, or dandelions altering their leave shapes. Although the weirding effect is potentially catastrophic, it’s also an exciting if unnerving time to be a biologist, given the extraordinary display of plasticity we now have the opportunity to witness.
Chemistry for Breakfast brought another interesting title to the table, authored by the most compelling chemistry teacher in media since Walter White. Mai Thi-Nyugen Kim’s night gig is YouTube star, however, not meth kingpin, and she has a very popular channel called “maiLab” that offers science-ed videos in German. Nguyen-Kim recounts a day in the life of a chemist, using the day’s events to deliver an introduction to the basics of die Chemie. The personal, narrative style succeeds brilliantly and offers side-lessons into the grueling workday of a doctoral candidate. As Nguyen-Kim guides readers through the basics of chemistry – the classic atomic model, the interactions of valence electrons, the differing kinds of bonds, etc – she also offers practical at-home experiments to illustrate the lessons being offered. I’ve never encountered a chemistry book this readable before, and was disappointed to find that her YouTube channel (which I’d intended to dive into) only had German content. Nguyen-Kim’s passion for the subject and clarity in delivering its principles makes her first book a valuable one for readers who want to retain some basic appreciation of both the spirit of science and the study of what matter is and how it changes.
I’m including a video from maiLab below to give you an idea of her personality. Those who don’t speak German can turn on close captioning, and via settings turn on auto-translate. Google does an impressive job of on-the-fly English captions!