Zolltan Nuclear Bomb Prediction Special

(Engraving by Albrecht Duerer)

And you thought the previous post was in bad taste! How about jokes mashing up hockey and millions of people dying terrible deaths? Sounds like a great idea, right?

I’ve always wanted to do a prediction style post on what country will drop the next nuclear bomb, but have never gotten around to it. With the current climate in world affairs, however, I have come to realize I better write such a post soon or it will no longer be relevant. And that would be a big embarrassment for this blog, which prides itself on being current.

Sadly, nuclear proliferation has not yet gotten so out of hand that I can think of 16 worthwhile candidates for the first round playoffs. So, the bracket will be padded with some unworthwhile candidates. Consider them the geopolitical equivalent of the Columbus Bluejackets.

Western Conference

(1) USA v. (8) A corporation U!S!A! U!S!A! But zolltan, corporations are eeeevil! Okay, true, but don’t make me laugh. The USA is such a juggernaut in these playoffs that no measly 8 seed provides any kind of competition. It’s got the offense, it’s got the defense. It’s more likely to drop a nuclear bomb by accident than anyone else is to do it on purpose. That’s how in command it is. USA in 4

(2) India v. (7) UK. A surprisingly high ranking for India. And with bellicose nationalists in ascendance, India has a potential nuclear confrontation in its pocket. But is India likely to use nuclear weapons first? It seems like the country can’t agrree on anything and by the time the Trinamool Congress and the seven different Janata Dal parties etc. all agree that something should be done, I’m sure we’ll be deep in nuclear winter already. In other words, the chemistry is just not there. Whereas the britishers are all about primacy. If they ever use nuclear weapons, you can be sure that they’ll be first. That can-do spirit means they have the intangibles to pull this one out. A risky pick and the stats-heads are not going to like this one, but sometimes we go with the gut feeling. I predict the upset of the tournament. Great Britain in 7

(3) Israel v. (6) There’s not going to be a nuclear bomb dropped ever. At first glance, this seems an uninspiring matchup between two unlikely candidates. Particularly the idea of no nuclear bombs ever at first seems laughable. World peace, ha! But the sneaky six seed is not as bereft of an offensive arsenal as it seems. Its secret weapon: the potential invention and use of a technology more deadly than nuclear weapons. Or, you know, any number of other ways the entire earth could be screwed in relatively short order. It’s actually a formidable foe. On the other end, you might say that Israel, an undersized opponent, would have trouble in the more physical areas of the game. However, sometimes it’s not the size of the dog in the fight. Israel is the only contender here that is small enough to have worries about total annihilation in a non-apocalyptic scenarios, and thus the moral barriers to dropping the bomb are much lower. They’re willing to go into the dirty areas where other players can’t. Therefore, I believe this series is theirs for the taking. Israel in 5

(4) Pakistan v. (5) Non-state terrorist actor. Pakistan is a country that has nuclear weapons. And also it’s a country where there is a huge amount of instability that we basically all agree to ignore for some reason. For example, this is happening in Pakistan right now. Also, this. Did you know that? Cause I didn’t. Also, it’s not clear that Pakistan’s government is in control of anything, and if it is, whether it still will be shortly. And there’s all sorts of militant groups active in the country. Did I mention there’s a bunch of nuclear weapons lying about? No problem there, no sir! The terrorists, on the other hand, have less natural talent, but an innovative coaching strategy. They aren’t going to develop or independently obtain nuclear weapons. But with the taboo against openly bombing other people with nuclear bombs pretty high, who is to say that a rogue state wouldn’t just make the bomb available to some terrorists who can then detontate it with tacit backing of that state, but without making the state as likely to suffer the consequences. A rogue state like, oh, I dunno, Pakistan? In other words, these are two sleeper picks to go very far in this tournament, but sadly, one of them will have to be eliminated in the first round. If I had to make a prediction, I would say there is just too much experience on the terrorist side to be easily cowed by brash Pakistan. Terrorists in 6

Eastern Conference

(1) Russia v. (8) France. Why is France in the Eastern Conference? Am I so blinkered that I bought into Mark Steyn’s stupid Eurabia thing? No, don’t worry, it’s nothing of the kind. Simply, this tournament has weird conferences / playoff seeding schemes. If it’s good enough for the NCAA and the CFL, it’s good enough for the world (TM). Also, this matchup is a cakewalk. The only reason to fear an upset is if Russia changes its name to something else and puts itself out of the running. The country’s roster is too stacked, in terms of people who don’t mind contemplating a nuclear apocalypse. Russia, as Kiselev reminds us, is the only country that can turn the US into radioactive ash, and it’s the only real contender with the US for the title. France just doesn’t have any offensive weapons to compare. Russia in 4

(2) China v. (7) Some country that doesn’t exist yet. Once again a 2 seed that’s at first glance very vulnerable. Currently, there is no geopolitical situation that I can think of where China might be tempted to use a nuclear weapon if that situation somehow develops. But, in the long run, its rise as a world power will necessarily enmesh it in further international conflicts, and its often ruthless politics mean it is not to be discounted. So both teams are youth-laden and looking towards the future, in a sense. But considering China currently has more tools at its disposal (read: a country, and nuclear weapons), I just don’t see this as having high upset potential. China in 6

(3) North Korea v. (6) A multinational government. To me, it’s sad that North Korea is this joke punchline to the west, whereas in actuality it is one of the greatest tragedies of the world. And yet, here I am, using it as a joke punchline. A very hard-fought series, but in the end, the North Koreans are just too enigmatic to rely on. Their production is inconsistent, and so I have to go with the upset: a multinational government in 6

(4) Iran v. (5) Saudi Arabia. Some high rankings for countries that currently don’t have nuclear weapons, but I think justifiable. Iran is well on its way, and the fundamentals for them achieving nuclear weaponry are just too solid to ignore. Whereas Saudi Arabia has all but confirmed that it can purchase nuclear weapons and will do so as soon as Iran becomes nuclear-capable. And while neither currently has the leadership that seems likely to use the bomb, the thing with pushing radical world’s end theology on your subjects is that some people come to believe it, and those people have a chance to get power, too. Iranian politicians have several times mentioned they would like to see Israel destroyed, and so I believe they are the more motivated team. Iran in 6

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Toward a theory of social gatherings

It’s almost like he’s trying to not ever get invited anywhere again. (Edit: but, in case it’s not clear, I don’t mean this to be taken at face value at all. It’s kind of a bad joke).

Lately, I’ve been trying to think of a way to classify parties and social gatherings for some reason. If you see me at a social gathering staring at a wall, this might be what I’m doing. Although probably not. Sorry, I just stare at walls sometimes. Anyway, as an example of what I’m talking about, here are two sets of factors I think are sort of nearly-mutually-orthogonal: the first set: attention paid to dress (A) and prevalence of professional degrees (P). Another set: average quality of beer consumed (B) and degree of racial segregation (R).

As in all classification schemes, I want to start out by emphasizing what I think is important. Things like age of participants and location-based factors (going to the beach and a dinner party is unlikely to have the same vibe, even if you do it with the exact same people) definitely affect the gathering, but they shouldn’t be fundamental classification parameters, because the goal should be to try to understand something about the typology of the people involved. But neither should it be seen as a ranking of the best and worst type of parties. And in fact, it isn’t. I can definitely think of times I’ve loved, and times I’ve hated, at a party that fits in any quadrant, in either classification system. I just think it’s a fun thing to think about.

So, for example,  here are the four types according to the first set, arranged roughly as in fig. 1gatherings

I. High A, high P. In colloquial parlance this is the “aspirational” or, if you’re feeling uncharitable, “douchebag” quadrant. Type specimen is a business gathering.

II. Low A, high P. This is the “nerd” or “eco-yuppie” quadrant. The type specimen of this party is something like parties thrown by the VOC and other outdoor clubs. But it also includes frat parties.

III. High A, low P. This is the “bohemian” or “hipster” quadrant, although I suppose clubbing would also fit here. I never really go clubbing, though, so I don’t know what that’s like. The type specimen of this party is an art opening.

IV. Low A, low P. This is the “bro” or “chill” quadrant. The type specimen of this gathering is a barbecue, or going for beers after work (obviously does not apply if your work is being a lawyer or something, but still).

Clearly this scheme has some problems. First and foremost that this kind of thing seems like an intentionally confusing way to talk about class divisions. And to make them sound legitimate. Which is not what I want to do. But there are also more specific problems. For example, high-A, low-P and low-A, high-P should be the least compatible groups. Whereas in actuality, these are the two that are closest spiritually and have the most overlap. So what do you think? Comments? Ideas for improvement? Does the second set of factors work better than the first?

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World’s Worst Poem

What is the worst poem ever? I submit that it might be this one, a poem I saw at the ferry terminal in Port Angeles, WA, USA:

SAMSUNG

If you have an example of a worse poem, I would like to see it.

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Not yet dead, Pt. II *Updated*

Putinite propaganda. I would like to think that *I’m* not engaging in Putinite propaganda.

Unrelated: the new wordpress editor sucks. Beep beep boop my ass.

**Update**: Some clarifications from feedback, that I’d like to answer right away. My post was definitely flawed, so let’s talk about it. The rest of the post is below my responses to feedback:

Q. Why are you equivocating between obviously made up stuff like the US-Ukrainian conspiracy to shoot down MH 17 and not made up stuff like the rebels accidentally shooting down MH 17? Isn’t this a disservice to your audience, who may not know which is which?

A. Yes. Sorry. I wanted to point out that the facts of the matter are as strongly fixed in the Russian worldview as they are here, but said it in a way that implied some kind of “both sides do it”-ism which wasn’t my intention. There was not a US-Ukrainian conspiracy to shoot down MH 17.

Q. Why are you equating the nationalism of Ukrainians fighting for their homeland with the expansionist aggressive nationalism of Russia?

A. This was something stupid that I said and I retract it. Great-nation nationalism is worse.

Q. Why lead with blaming Poroshenko when the aggressor is Putin? Isn’t that immoral?

A. I disagree here. Maybe for God, it matters that here Putin is cynically destabilizing the situation while Poroshenko’s goal may be to stabilize it, or that, say, in the Iraq war Hussein was evil and Bush Jr. just horribly misguided. For the people that have to die as a result, it doesn’t matter much. I believe that not knowing what the hell you’re doing when you’re in a position of great power and responsibility is something that is strongly morally culpable. The difference between one and the other, and the reason I think it makes sense to talk about what Poroshenko should do rather than what Putin should – the remedy is much easier.

Q. Isn’t Poroshenko agreeing to appease Putin a bad idea? Ukraine let go Crimea without a fight and that didn’t particularly lead to peace and quiet.

A. This is also a good point. Even all concessions from Poroshenko may not lead to peace. But we must be clear that there is only one alternative, and it doesn’t depend on Poroshenko much: the West must arm Ukraine substantially. If the West does that, I think we are headed to a very big, serious war. That can only be avoided if both sides seriously don’t want it (and even then avoiding it is not guaranteed), and I’ve not seen any indication that Russia does not want a big war.

Ben Judah at the New York Times makes the point that not arming Ukraine is basically signalling the end of US as worldwide enforcer of the ideals of the west. I agree. But the US has shown everywhere that it has been involved militarily that it isn’t actually capable of using its force to create change for the better. So I think we might as well accept reality: the US already isn’t a successful world enforcer of the ideals of the west. In the world today, it is already the case that evil regimes can slaughter innocents, wage war and intimidate neighbours. In this case, one such evil regime is Russia.

Okay, now the original post, below the fold Continue reading

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The best books I read in the first half of 2014

This year I must be doing a good job choosing books, or just getting lucky, or have lowered expectations, because even though I’ve read much fewer books than last year, I’ve read more outstanding ones. Since if this luck continues it would make for too long a post come the end of the year, here is a semi-annual version of this previous post.

The Periodic Table (Primo Levi, 1975) I heard of this book as being about science, which is not a very appropriate description at all. It’s mostly an autobiography, with a couple short stories thrown in. The scientific connection comes about because each essay or story is titled after – and usually involves – a given chemical element. Despite what whoever I heard of this book made it sound like, it’s not that you learn anything about the title element in any essay. Instead, it works as an overarching idea, helping give a reference point and a constraint to stories about Levi’s boyhood, work, imprisonment in a concentration camp, and even a fantasy about a traveling miner-intuitive. That kind of loosely constrained writing is what I think it’s the most fun writing, and it’s also something I greatly enjoy reading. And, since Levi’s life is intimately connected with his career as a chemist, it is highly apt for an autobiography. It made me remember the time I was excited about and wanted to study chemistry very nostalgically. Despite this book not being in any way scientific, I think nothing could be better than it to give to aspiring chemists, too: it helps convey the everyday excitement and mystery that chemistry can hold. But because Levi is a writer who feels people deeply and who others somehow instinctively trust as a listener, it’s also a lot more universal than just that.

Dune (Frank Herbert, 1965) A huge achievement in world building – and in tension building. The world building is impressive because it avoids most of the standard trappings of sci-fi or fantasy to offer something novel and fascinating. The tension building is even more so. Dune unfolds almost like a Greek tragedy. Our hero Paul Atreides seems destined to become a prophet, and seems destined to come to ruin, and seems destined to lead the world into a huge cataclysm. This fate is foreshadowed again and again. And the whole book, even as political intrigue swirls and even as we are initiated into Herbert’s world, has this background of everyone including Paul himself fighting, savagely, desperately, to gain some measure of control over the wheels of fate. This tension builds and builds and builds and never releases. The end of the book is just as tense, just as filled with foreboding, as any other part. This is a perfect set up for the sequel. I heard that the Dune saga gets worse and worse from here. But, really, with a buildup so immense, the truth is that it can’t help but disappoint, no matter what happens. Maybe the moment of maximum tension is where we are best to leave off.

Family / Borghesia (Natalia Ginzburg, 1977) Family and Borghesia are two novellas that are made to be read as one book, a book I randomly picked out at the university library. I had never heard of the author – I assumed she was somehow connected to Russia, which she isn’t at all – she is Italian, and the novellas take place mostly in Rome. This is why university libraries are so great, ny the way. You can pick out a random book knowing nothing about it with much more confidence than you can at a store or at a public library, which are bound to be filled with mostly crappy books. But back to Family and Borghesia: I thought they were incredibly powerful. They begin as writing prompts, as completely bare statements of abstract fact: the first sentence of “Family” is “A man and a woman went to see a film one sunny Sunday afternoon”; for “Borghesia” it is “a woman who had never kept any animals was given a cat”. They slowly grow out from there in random spurts with everyday situations, people who come into the story for a minute, only to disappear, or to reappear later, ordinary thoughts and worries and jealousies and this feeling of something so very important lacking. It’s like life. I am now going to go looking for other things she’s written, but for now let me recommend these two.

The Translator (John Crowley, 2002) I was interested in seeing what the author of maybe the best fantasy book ever written (“Little, Big”) would do without any fantasy whatsoever. It’s in fact notable how completely free of the fantastic element this book is: I kept waiting for the littlest magical realist touch, just the hint of something truly inexplicable. Which is not to say that the book lacks in mystery. Crowley is a master of ambiguity and underexplanation as tools of mystery, so even though everything that happens is in some sense “normal,” it is still mysterious. What does happen? A young college freshman meets a poet exiled from the Soviet Union. And then later, she remembers this time of her life, coinciding with the Cuban Missile Crisis, and also what came before. Because the girl, Kit, grows up to be a poet and a translator, and because the exiled, somewhat Brodsky-like dissident Falin teaches her a course on poetry, and gets her to translate his poems, the beauty and power of language is ever present. They talk profoundly about language and translation, and they talk in poetic language, and they are surrounded by stunning images. But despite this enchanting web, it’s the two central characters, Kit and Falin, that are really the highlights of the book, much more so than, say, in “Little, Big”.

The 14 Carat Roadster (Jeno Rejto, 1940) A madcap caper of a book, few things can compete for pure enjoyment. A farce, a romance, a dashing adventure, a parody of the military in the face of the French Foreign Legion, and a mocking love letter for the Aristocratic Europe of Biarritzes and Monacos. Imagine if the Good Soldier Svejk, without being any less the Good Soldier Svejk, was also Ostap Bender and a romantic hero, and you start to see what this book is like. It starts like this:

Ivan Gorchev, sailor on the freight ship Rangoon, was not yet twenty-one when he won the Nobel Prize in physics. To win a scientific award at such a romantically young age is unprecedented, though some people might consider the means by which it was achieved a flaw. For Ivan Gorchev won the Nobel Prize in physics in a card game, called macao, from a Professor Bertinus, on whom the honour had been bestowed in Stockholm by the King of Sweden a few days earlier. But those who are always finding fault don’t like to face facts, and the fact of the matter is that Ivan Gorchev did win the Nobel Prize at the age of twenty-one.

Can you beat that? You can’t, and if you think you can, you’re wrong. And then you realize this romp, where any fool who takes anything seriously is committing the most grievous blunder and is cause for endless hilarity, was being written by a man who knew he wouldn’t be able to publish it under his own name, being a Jew. A man who was going to die in a forced labour camp less than three years later. I don’t know what that means about life.

A Good Man is Hard to Find (Flannery O’Connor, 1955) My roommate was leaving “The Love of a Good Woman” on the coffee table, so I thought in response, I’d start leaving “A Good Man is Hard to Find” there, too. And then I got to reading it and it was nothing like I expected. This book is absolutely devastating in its cutting, bitter irony. It shows us the South, and it shows us people, real people, and it does so without any compassion whatsoever. Not a drop of it. It is funny, yes, but we are not placed at a safe remove where we can get by with condescension. And so, even more than it is funny, it is frightening. The title is supposed to be ironic, but O’Connor means it, too. Good people are hard to find because there is not a single good person in this world.

The Love of a Good Woman (Alice Munro, 1998) I dunno what Alice Munro does with whatever she writes that isn’t brilliant. I’ve read short stories that I liked more than Munro, but I’ve not yet read a Munro short story that wasn’t brilliant. I don’t think I can say that about anyone else. The thematics of this collection are a little bit more varied than what I’d read before (murder, abortion clinics, a disappearance in South East Asia, Paris) as are the narrative devices. But fundamentally, it’s the same thing: Munro understands the inner live of people, whether they be children, lovers, old people. And she writes about how those inner lives connect in odd, oblique ways with big momentous events and with small personal interactions. That’s it. There’s no other secret to it. You think that it’d be too mundane, but quietly she has storied-up all of life.

Lolita (Vladimir Nabokov, 1955) I’d read it before and at the time it seemed strange to me how Nabokov had me sympathising with a pedophile rapist. Now I wonder why I ever thought so, because reading it again, Humbert Humbert is, and I think is clearly meant to be, an extremely repulsive character. But the mind games and the word games this book plays! Showing off an unparallelled mastery of the language is one thing, of course, but there’s also all this lyricism. And the cars and the bars and the barmen. I don’t need to introduce this book to you, obviously, though. It’s a masterpiece, and let’s leave it at that.

Slouching towards Bethlehem (Joan Didion, 1968) I started reading this book in the bookstore of the university where I briefly worked as a labourer. I would come for my coffee breaks, come for my lunch break, and since in general it wasn’t very important that you start or finish your breaks right on time, I ended up reading a lot of this book. I realized I was completely entranced, which is rare for a book of non-fiction for me. But what non-fiction! The opening essay, “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream” has the most beautiful prose of any non-fiction that I can think of. It also helps that throughout the book, I thought of Joan Didion as a kindred spirit. I don’t know if it’s just the writing that’s so easy to identify with, or whether there’s anything more to it, but throughout, I had the feeling that Didion was expressing just what I would have wanted to, but been unable to, express in a given situation. Although she mentions sending out an article to The Nation, I don’t think I’ve read anything so deeply conservative in my life. As someone who is similarly left wing in his politics and incredibly conservative in his general life outlook, this book spoke to my prejudices like few others.

Shadow of the Sun (Ryszard Kapuscinsky, 1998) I’ve never read much about Africa. Neither has the target reader of Ryszard Kapuscinsky’s book. For something like 40 years, Kapuscinsky was the Polish press’ only representative in Africa, so the story of the entire continent falls on his shoulders. He appears everywhere, remarking on the world-momentous and the personal, seeming to barely escape with his life several times and always with a story for the papers. It’s very exciting. It’s also a valuable service, as everywhere he goes, he exposes and shames cruelty, and he rails against the colonial mindset and against gross generalizations about “Africa” as if it were one. And yet in his book, you see that the generalizations are still there. At some level, if you write a single 300-page book whose theme is Africa for the past forty years, it can’t be helped. But it’s worse than it has to be. And are any of his stories really true? It’s not altogether clear. If I were someone were someone deeply informed about Africa, this book would have annoyed me. But since I’m not, Shadow of the Sun is information, philosophy, adventure, testament, and not least a primer to get one to want to look deeper.

Invisible Cities (Italo Calvino, 1972) I heard before about re-reading the same book at different times and getting something different out of it, but I thought that was kind of just a turn of phrase. Even Lolita, above, where I had a different reaction to the book than previously, was just a matter of changed sympathies. Rereading Invisible Cities, I thought it was about something different than what I thought it was about when I first read it. Back then, I thought it was a medieval fantasy, and a tale about the tricks that memory plays. And even more so an exercise in Escher-like imagination in building dream cities that Calvino then gets Marco Polo to recount to Kublai Khan. I loved it. This time around, I thought it was something totally different: a comment on the modern world. The main themes of the book seemed to me to be how modern travel never leaves one satisfied, the wanderlust of the next destination impossible to separate from disappointment in the present, the eternal question of whether there is anything more out there. It’s about the swift globalisation of culture, and the formlessness and meaninglessness of modern giant agglomerations. Marco Polo, when the Khan chastises him for never describing Venice, protests: but what do you think I’ve been telling you about all this time? The first time around, I saw this as a profound comment on memory. Now, I see it can also be read more literally. Venice is symptomatic of the modern world where cities face a difficult choice: to be commodified as tourist checkboxes, or to abandon any distinguishing characteristic or form, or, somehow, both. Whether in its earlier guise or how I see it now, this book is the cream of the crop.

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A thought experiment in drawing parallels

“One friend from Northern Ireland said on facebook that a relative had told him that the key to understanding any conflict was to work out who are the ‘Protestants’ and who are the ‘Catholics'”, Chris Bertram once recounted on Crooked Timber. This opinion is now four times removed from the reader, a sufficient distance that we needn’t take it too literally. But, couched in this distance, I kind of think it’s useful to admit that a lot of global conflicts are actually very similar at heart. With that in mind, let me tell you of a current geopolitical conflict.

The main actors are a nation state versus a primarily military, but also political organization claiming to represent an oppressed territory. The nation state is run by a political coalition that has some unsavoury members, but does have democratic legitimacy. This legitimacy is denied by the military organization on account of voting not being available to the populace of the region in question. In its view, the nation state are thus illegitimate occupiers of the territory. More than that, the military organization insists the current nation state is in fact entirely illegitimate and needs to be overthrown. A lot of the anti-nation state rhetoric compares the nation state to fascists, which is very strongly offensive to the nation state, as its people bore some of the heaviest casualties at the hands of fascists in World War II.

The military organization claims that it has democratic legitimacy in the region, whereas others dispute this, since voting took place in a heavily militarized environment and amid intimidation. It operates, among other places, from within densely populated urban areas. The nation state attacks the urban areas with artillery fire, which leads to destruction of civilian infrastructure and high loss of civilian life. This last has caused Human Rights Watch to accuse the nation state of war crimes. The nation state, meanwhile, maintains that the civilian casualties are the other side’s fault: operating from within these densely populated areas, the military organization is effectively using civilians as human shields, it claims.The reputed total casualties have recently surpassed 1,000 people.

The military organization is backed up by an oil-rich neighbour, which supplies it with arms, money and help in the informational war. Although this oil-rich country has a news channel put out for American audiences that are often viewed to get differing perspectives, outsiders accuse the press of the neighbours of overt propaganda. Another common accusation of the neighbours is that they are abusing a situation of a suffering populace to score cheap geopolitical victories. The oil rich neighbour also happens to be yearning for higher status worldwide. Part of that neighbours play for status consists of hosting a soccer world cup in the near future, received amid FIFA voting that was obviously mired in corruption. The nation state, meanwhile, is strongly supported by the United States of America. Within the USA, there is debate as to whether this support is in its geopolitical interest.

The military organization is widely accused of terrorism, and the nation state refuses to negotiate with it directly on the pretext that it does not negotiate with terrorists. Everything about the conflict is terrible, and there is no sign of an imminent end.

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The best books I read in 2013

Back when I wrote out my list of quotes, I kind of thought it’d be just a part of a 2013 retrospective, where I’d tell you about movies I saw, books I read, places I went, post-graduate degrees I received, all that kind of stuff. It turned out to be too hard to do. But I still want to write a book review kind of post, so instead of telling you about all of the books, how about just talking about the best ones. I know that halfway through the next year isn’t really a good time to be doing end-of-year lists, but… uhh… I don’t have any counterargument to that, actually. In any case, since I didn’t read any books that came out in 2013, the year designation is completely irrelevant.

The Silmarillion (J.R.R. Tolkien, 1977). I tried reading the Silmarillion when I was about 10, and I stopped cause it was really boring. Which made me think that I should never read it, because that was when I practically had the LotR appendix memorised, and could tell you whom Castamir the Usurper usurped, etc. So what a surprise when A. said the Silmarillion was so much better than LotR, and what a surprise when I started reading it again, after A. (a different A.) finished using it for honing his trivia skills. The Silmarillion is a book of astonishing scope and vision. It doesn’t have dialogue. It doesn’t have settings, in the way the Lord of the Rings does. It doesn’t have characters. It doesn’t have insights into life. It has a plot, but not really one anyone would care about. It doesn’t even have beautiful prose in a conventional way. Instead, it has words that sound mighty and regal and wise. It has gods and demigods and shapeshifting dogs and one-on-one battles between good and evil. It has speeches and spite carried for generations and words like hame and fane. It is more like the Iliad than it is like any fantasy book that I know. I loved it.

The Sense of an Ending (Julian Barnes-Owles, 2011). When I briefly worked in a movie theatre, I used to claim that the endings of movies were so bad that I would find out when the movie ended and leave five minutes in advance. My dad, a serial book non-finisher, made a similar claim about the Sense of an Ending: he feels more justified not finishing books after finishing this one, since the ending undermined the entire book. But I don’t think it’s quite the case. Tony, our narrator, is not only unreliable and unremarkable, but it’s in part his unremarkableness that makes him unreliable. When the novel takes an abrupt turn and drama comes back into retirement-age Tony’s life, you can read that as Tony straining to recapture some kind of relevance for his life. Regardless, this is a short, pithy book, that, ending or not, I will think about for a long time.

Наши (Ours, Sergei Dovlatov, 1983). My grandpa said that everyone’s life contains enough good stories for one good book. And it’s writing a second good book that is a challenge. He may have been quoting someone else. Anyway, these sketches of Dovlatov’s relatives are funny and cute, and really absorbing. They also make you feel like you should get to know your relatives better. And that maybe you should write a book.

Dreaming of Babylon (Richard Brautigan, 1977). I loaned this book to somebody back in 2007 and never got it back. Since then, I’d remembered it as my favourite Brautigan, and coming back to it I was relieved to find it wasn’t nostalgia speaking. This book is awesome. The story of a detective so down on his luck he can’t afford bullets, so sadsack his biggest worry is calling his mom and so incompetent he doesn’t have a clue what’s going on. Also, occasionally, he takes a break from detective work to fantasize about being a guy called Smith Smith who is the best baseball player in ancient Babylon. The hilarious premise is hilariously executed.

Ghostwritten (David Mitchell, 1999) A series of vignettes about people (mostly) who are in some meaningful sense “ghosts” living in an interlocked world, this book is David Mitchell showing that he can do anything. Any style, any voice, any location, be it paranoid sci-fi or Lucky Jim-style charming English rom-com,  Haruki Murakami or crime caper, meditation on eternal travel or supernatural thriller. The guy is a virtuoso, and it’s awe inspiring to see him strut his stuff.

Cryptonomicon (Neal Stephenson, 1999). It’s sort of alternate history-but-not-quite that’s mostly about cryptography and world war II. It’s engagingly, cleverly written (“He’s on the third floor of a commercial building so nondescript that the most interesting observation one can make about it is that it has four stories”). It’s super inventive, it’s eloquent, without sounding pompous or overly impressed with itself, it’s funny. It has an almost Eugene Onegin-like scope: if Neal Stephenson is interested in something, it’ll be there. Its politics are rather annoying to me, and every female character – and even the male characters’ discussions of female characters – often made me cringe in frustration. Luckily, the enormous sweep of the book, how much interesting stuff there is in it to think about, philosophically, technologically, and just in terms of the staggering scope of information and topics overshadows that for me. Few reading experiences are better than getting “lost in the world” of a book, and Cryptonomicon offers as much of that as you could want. It’s weird to see that it was published the same year as “Ghostwritten” – I would have pegged “Ghostwritten” as a much later book.

Where the Jackals Howl (Amos Oz, 1965) This is so much better than every other Amos Oz book I’ve read that it’s hard to believe they’re by the same author – I wonder if maybe it’s a matter of translators? Stories that slowly build up to breaking point and then break epically. The reading equivalent of a day when you know a lightning storm will come and then the lightning storm comes.

Essais I (Montaigne, 1570) The essays are a joy to read because Montaigne constantly switches topics, digresses into outlandish questions and contradicts himself in a very entertaining manner. To a modern reader, you get the picture of a very decent person whose opinions and interests range from the very profound (on death) to the sensible but mundane (on superstition) to ones which seem crazy now but probably weren’t at the time (on how women can’t be true friends) to just completely bizarre (as when he muses on what he would do if he were hired as a defense lawyer by the human penis). You could be reading his thoughts on friendship one moment, and the next his thoughts on whether it’s reasonable to wear clothes or on whether people are unfairly prejudiced against cannibals. I was fascinated throughout.

Parkinson’s Law (C. Northcote Parkinson, 1958). The only business book I’ve ever read and also the only business book I’ve read twice, and also the only business book I ever plan on reading. It’s dry, it’s witty, it’s cutting, it’s astute. It’s hard to believe that someone with so much well-placed and precise contempt for all manner of enterprises actually was a member of society in good standing. The Law of Triviality (that when a group is tasked with spending money, the amount of discussion is inversely proportional to the amount of money involved) is particularly well-spotted and brilliantly explained.

Selected Stories (Alice Munro, 1996). I read it because Munro won the Nobel Prize, and in my mind it was totally well-deserved. Only Tolstoy and Trifonov of people I have read have a comparable rapport with how people think, and how their inner and outer lives interact, often glancingly and indirectly. And that’s even though the topic of Munro’s stories – most usually a divorced middle aged woman remembering growing up in the Ottawa Valley in one form or another – is of absolutely minimal interest to me. Despite that, the stories are completely captivating. And every story I’ve read since has been on that same level. Munro has an incredibly high standard.

Carry On, Jeeves (P.G. Wodehouse, 1925). This book is so fun to read out loud. Not many people are as funny as P.G. Wodehouse.

The Book of the New Sun (Gene Wolfe, 1980-1983). Actually four separate books, it’s a dark fantasy that follows a journeyman torturer’s life. It has a bizarre, super-intricate world, excursions into philosophy, beautiful imagery and an exquisite prose style. The style is achieved in a novel way: there are no invented words in the Book of the New Sun, though there are obviously invented things. Instead, deprecated greek and roman-rooted words for weapons, animals, structures abound, making the books feel timeless. And the atmosphere is very dark. I don’t want to say austere, because Book of the New Sun is certainly ornate, too, but this feeling of a cold, unfriendly world that’s felt through the prose. Macabre and exciting and personal and not gussied-up at all.

Журавли и карлики (Cranes and Pygmies, Leonid Yuzefovich, 2009).  When I was buying this book, I was afraid it would be like “Chapaev and Void”, which I hated. The bookseller assured me that it was nothing like it. He lied completely. It is exactly like “Chapaev and Void”: the same spatiotemporal jumps from the Revolution era to the Wicked 90’s and European Russia to Mongolia. The same middling, venal characters spouting shallow philosophy. The difference is that “Cranes and Pygmies” is really really great. First, it’s the verisimilitude and attention to detail. Yuzefovich is a historian, and he really cares about Mongolia in a way Pelevin doesn’t at all. As a result you get a fascinating picture rather than something that looks like a hastily constructed set. But it’s also characters that are less put-on, and so much more interesting. It never feels like the whole thing is a vehicle for some bullshit philosophical point and/or pop-culture references. Instead, it’s a historical puzzle, a love song to Mongolia, and a novel about real people.

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