Dr Mitch's 2020 reads

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edited January 23 in Book Reviews
I should do this again...

1. The Case for God (Karen Armstrong)
A work on theology/philosophy, looking at the history of (mainly) monotheistic religion and what is meant by belief, and the purpose of mythology. I found it fascinating.

2. Norse Mythology (Neil Gaiman)
Narrative retellings of stories from Norse mythology. Fun and well done, but nothing fundamentally different to other things I've read on this theme, though a couple of individual tales were new to me.

3 - 5. The Bull and the Spear, The Oak and the Ram, The Sword and the Stallion (Michael Moorcock). The last (for me; it contradicts any chronological order) of the main Eternal Champion novels which for me was a sort of coda to it all. Whereas the earlier Corum trilogy had some Celtic flavour, this was heavily shaped by Celtic myth.

6. The Golden Globe (John Varley)
A sprawling science fiction tale in a far future solar system involving a trickster/actor protagonist and revelations about his past. It took a long time to really grip me, but once it did I loved it.

7. Gone to Sea in a Bucket (David Black)
I'll save my chat for the book club discussion. Not my usual sort of book at all, and that's a good thing.

Comments

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    By coincidence, I caught an interview with Karen Armstrong this month. Never heard of her before that.
    https://cbc.ca/radio/ideas/we-must-recapture-the-lost-art-of-scripture-karen-armstrong-1.5401341

    The Corum books were always my favourite Eternal Champion books.

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    Karen Armstrong is extremely good on thinking what myth is for, and it applies whether we're talking (say) Greek Mythology or the Garden of Eden myth - saying something through metaphor about the world and about human nature (and doesn't think Eden is about sin but rather the tension between innocence and knowledge). Not a literal explanation for anything, but an insight. I find it really compelling.

    As for Corum, for me, the first Corum trilogy is in the running for best and distils down some of the themes without the (admittedly fun) over the top angst of Elric. What was cool for me was the crossover sequences. The Quest for Tanelorn was early for Elric, but after Corum's death - but Corum and Elric crossed paths much earlier in Corum's narrative and later in Elric's.

    Though I still say Stormbringer is Moorcock's best book. But some of the earlier Elric books are needed to give it weight and some of those are dross really, partially because they were written very early in Moorcock's career.
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    edited February 19
    8 - 11. The Caves of Steel, The Naked Sun, Robots of the Dawn, Robots and Empire (Isaac Asimov).

    The anniversary made it time for a reread of a series I loved about 30 years ago. The first two are quick reads, incredibly solid, and showcase Asimov's style of stories as being intellectual puzzles. Being SF murder mysteries, there's also some good world building and they're better for characters with personalities than some of Asimov's work.

    The last two are weaker stories, but more good world building and in a view of people living centuries in the last, with some touching notes.

    It's not all good. I was taken aback by the sexism. In the first (from 1958) it shouldn't have come as a surprise, but I really didn't like the way the protagonist's wife was so patronised by him, to the extent of being infantalised. But the third from 1985 was no better, suggesting a woman might be flattered by what amounted to harassment, and at the start a physical description featuring the phrase "prominent breasts" which made me guffaw out loud incredulously.

    And far future New York, despite being a sealed off dome, still felt to me like 1950s New York. Still, I got enough out of them to read four in a row, but I'll need a few other books before rereading more Asimov.
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    12. Arthur and the Fall of Roman Britain (Edwin Pace)
    Interesting. A narrative history of early 5th century Britain where the main assertion is that Arthur is real and the same person as Vortigern and Gildas' "Proud Tyrant". This moves Arthur earlier than the usual position. I'm not sure it's completely plausible, but it makes some interesting points and at the very least presents an interesting world for Arthurian fiction.

    13. The Stress of Her Regard (Tim Powers)
    A novel set in the early 19th century presenting a really interesting take on vampires - and their entanglements with poets since they also function as muses, and there's interesting things about obsession and addiction. It's also at times absolutely horrific. My favourite Tim Powers novel.

    14. The Player of Games (Iain M. Banks)
    Full steam ahead for the book club discussion! I'm looking forward to talking about this one.
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    edited April 6
    I feel like I've read relatively few books lately, but the numbers don't back that up, especially if I include a couple of things which aren't books, but took time to listen to, and did in my reading time. My thread, my rules.

    15. The History of Rome (Mike Duncan)
    A podcast. 75 hours or so covering the time from Rome's mythical origins to the fall of the western empire. Very highly recommended. When over I felt a bit lost without it.

    16. The Rivers of London (Ben Aaranovitch)
    Book club read. First book of series I really enjoy.

    17. October Man (Ben Aaranovitch)
    A novella, related to the Rivers of London series, but set in Germany with a different cast of characters. I liked it.

    18. Lord of the Rings (BBC Radio Play)
    Far and away my favourite LOTR adaptation.

    19. Physics of the Impossible (Michio Kaku)
    A physicist surveys some science fiction concepts and considers their scientific possibility and likelihood. Entertaining, and a useful book for science fiction world building.
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    20 - 21. Time to Depart, A Dying Light in Cordoba (Lindsey Davis)
    More Falco novels - about a hardboiled detective (or informer) in Rome under Vespasian. Good stuff. The first set in Rome itself, the second involving a trek to Spain. And the soapish elements of the continuing series continue to engage. I love this series. I will be reading more.

    22 -23. Persepolis Rising, Tiamat's Wrath (James S.A. Corey)
    Books seven and eight of the Expanse series. By now the books have lost the individually self-contained formula, and are growing in scope and towards a big finale in the next final book, with some big SF ideas. It's an enjoyable series, not hugely deep, but highly readable.

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    @dr_mitch said:
    I should do this again...

    1. The Case for God (Karen Armstrong)
      A work on theology/philosophy, looking at the history of (mainly) monotheistic religion and what is meant by belief, and the purpose of mythology. I found it fascinating.

    I happened to run across this while searching for a list of all the books read by the group, so I guess I don’t have notifications turned on for everything.

    I’ve read several of Armstrong’s books and heard her speak as one of the keynotes at an American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting. My assessment of her work is that of an Informed amateur. Her academic training is in literature, and it’s certainly valid to use those tools to explore religion. Literary criticism is useful in this regard, and Is not limited to examine religious texts as literature. Literary critical tools can provide fruitful analysis of religious practice beyond the use of texts, and I think her work on texts that deal with religious and poetic experience is academically solid. This work led her to mysticism and then to write about historical aspects of religion(s).

    I think she overstates her case when making historical claims, and she does not consistently follow historiographical norms, mixing and matching them to prove her point. I dock points from undergraduates’ papers when they try to do the same thing. I’m not unsympathetic to the claims she makes, but she’s not an historian and she doesn’t consistently utilize historical methods.

    I think her work would be much stronger if she had embraced the interdisciplinary nature of her work explicitly bridged literary method and historical method in some way. What I’m going to remark on is not the only way she could do this, but one way could be for her to adopt/adapt Hayden White’s focus on history / historiography as narrative. White connects Northrop Frye’s four forms of employment — irony, comedy, tragedy, romance — with four ways to write history, building on four philosophies of history. Each of the four constellations of what White calls metahistory has its own set of ways to explore questions that both academic disciplines ask: what is real (ontology)? What is true and how can we know it (epistemology)? What evidence is appropriate in determining what is true? How do the things that we deem to be true interact and intersect with one another? How do we communicate these truths?

    White’s four broad ways of looking at these questions form constellations of thought, and they lead us to quite different conclusions even when looking at the same historical events. A history written in the basis that is written on the foundation that history is linear is not the same as a history of the same event based on the foundation history is dialectical, or circular, or cyclical like a pendulum, or random. What Armstrong does, in my opinion, is to pick and choose conclusions that actual historians have made about certain historical events and has put those conclusions together in a way that does not conform to a coherent historical method or philosophy but which rather conforms to her own overarching conclusion. She picks and chooses interpretations of history (and that part is fine) in ways to prove her point rather than to engage in historical method (even in an interdisciplinary manner along with literary method) that takes one wherever truth (as defined by that specific approach) may lead.

    Like I said, I am sympathetic to her views. I agree with her that, if there is a God, we must necessarily know about that God through the specifics of our culture and that we grope toward (and away from) understanding that God in a way that evolves (for better or worse). I am explicitly a correlationist in my own academic work. We cannot know a thing-in-itself only that thing-in-relation-to-us as mediated by conceptual categories available to us (basic Kant), therefore we cannot know God-in-Godself only God-in-relation-to-us as mediated to us by conceptual categories available to us. And @dr_mitch , I note and agree with what I infer from your comment that Armstrong looks only at a history of monotheism. God, the Divine, the Sacred, or whatever we may choose to is bigger than monotheism.

    I am with her in her desire to shape a more compassionate spirituality. Common threads can be found in all the worlds religions, but these threads of compassion are not the threads in any religion. The defining myths of many religions are violent. Marduk defeats Tiamat and splits her carcass in order to create sky and earth. Vishnu tells Arjuna not to worry about all the evil that comes with war; just do your duty as a member of the warrior caste and be content to know that those who will suffer from war are getting their just desserts of their karma anyway. Yahweh curses the snake and casts out the humans, dooming them to lives of toil and suffering, ending in death, and then he later decided to destroy almost all of it with a flood.

    Okay, this post is way too long. I’m interested in any thoughts anyone has in response.

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    @WildCard (tagged to to make sure you're notified), I think I agree, though my academic training is neither in litarary criticism nor history. Karen Armstrong's work is academic, but doesn't read like a history book even when the subject is history. Some of her arguments are teleological.

    So when Armstrong says "compassion is the goal of all good religions" she's expressing a wish (or defining "good" that way, which is fair enough) rather than observing. The same goes with what she sees as valid spirituality.

    I still agree with an awful lot of what she says, and I think I'm largely a religious believer in the way she defines. Some of what she says is quite powerful - or at least resonates with me. The favourite book of hers that I've read is Fundamentalism, which does have some insights into a particular mindset.

    And yes, she does focus entirely on monotheism. I don't know if that's just because it's Armstrong's area of expertise or something more.

    I've another of her books lined up to read.

    Anyway, thanks for discussing - I wanted to chat about these books, if anyone else had read them, which was the reason for this thread.

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    There's not been an awful lot of general reading for me lately (I've got through quite a few RPG books, but they fall into a different category - my thread, my rules ;) ). But I have:

    1. Auberon (James A. Corey). A novella that sits in between the two novels I read in terms of the fictional timeline. It was okay, but far from the best Expanse piece of fiction.
    2. Always Coming Home (Ursula Le Guin). I'm not clever enough for this book. I finished and enjoyed parts of it though.
    3. The Skipper's Dog's Called Stalin (David Black). The next in the series on from @clash_bowley 's pick. More submarine action, and another fun novel. The French feature in a somewhat stereotyped, but varied and largely flattering way. I'm sure I'll read book 3 at some point.
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    @dr_mitch said:
    There's not been an awful lot of general reading for me lately (I've got through quite a few RPG books, but they fall into a different category - my thread, my rules ;) ). But I have:

    1. Auberon (James A. Corey). A novella that sits in between the two novels I read in terms of the fictional timeline. It was okay, but far from the best Expanse piece of fiction.

    Haven't read this yet...

    1. Always Coming Home (Ursula Le Guin). I'm not clever enough for this book. I finished and enjoyed parts of it though.

    And you are cleverer than I, my friend!

    1. The Skipper's Dog's Called Stalin (David Black). The next in the series on from @clash_bowley 's pick. More submarine action, and another fun novel. The French feature in a somewhat stereotyped, but varied and largely flattering way. I'm sure I'll read book 3 at some point.

    The series is very well done, and I have read many such.I am glad you enjoyed it enough to continue! I am continuing the Becky Chambers series and really enjoying it!

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