The Nickel and Dime Decade: American Popular Culture During the 1930s, by Gary Best

This book is pretty awful.

So I was looking for social histories of the Depression for… no reason. Certainly not because I was researching the life and times of Steve Rogers, nope. >_> Although… hypothetically speaking… if anyone wanted to chat about this stuff, you might possibly find me a very enthusiastic willing ear.

And this book does indeed have a lot of relevant and interesting information, but it also has some of the most dishonest scholarship I’ve seen since I picked up an Ann Coulter book.

Strap in, friends, we’re gettin’ political!

Life in a Medieval City, by Frances & Joseph Gies (14/107)

So finally I was like, Being busy is no excuse — if you have time to surf the internet for a few hours, you have time to read.

And so I did.

The Gies’ Life in a Medieval City was a fun and fast read, absolutely crammed with useful details and indispensable for world-building. I recommend it as a jumping-off point to anyone doing research for medieval or fantasy fiction — it has enough information in itself for people who just want a period feel and don’t require strict historical accuracy, and it also has a comprehensive bibliography for people who do.

This book focused especially on the rise of commerce and the merchant class, which is particularly relevant to my interests, since the protagonist in one of my books (the book that is Most Likely To Be Publishable, should I finish it) is the son of an urban merchant/trader, and money & politics (& magic!!) is the backbone of that plot.

Soiled Doves: Prostitution in the Early West, by Anne Seagraves (11/107)

After finishing A Book of Tongues, I looked at Soiled Doves and went, "You know, I bet Gemma Files read that in her research."

NAILED IT.

That said, it's one of the worst pieces of nonfiction I've ever goddamn read. Not particularly nuanced or well-written to start with, it is staggeringly judgmental (perhaps the title should have tipped me off) and in desperate need of a proofreader. Rather than presenting the information and letting the facts speak for themselves, Seagraves feels the need to sprinkle her prose with language that would sound amateur even in fiction — despicable! sordid! degrading! — and enough references to "iniquity," "sin," and "the ugliness of raw, naked vice" to make it clear that she's not just offering sympathy for the prostitutes' bad working conditions, but also judging the hell out of them for it.

In conclusion: lousy writing, and so badly biased that it makes the content suspect.

ARISTOTLE EXPLAINS EVERYTHING, by Aristotle (9/107)

Socializing is awkward at the moment, because I’m “between jobs,” as the euphemism goes, but then every time I’m meeting someone new —

“So what do you do?” they ask.

“I beg for jobs worry about money do sweet fuck-all read a lot,” I say.

“Cool, what are you reading now?” they ask.

“Uhm…….” I say. “Stuff.”

Because it feels unbearably pretentious to say “Aristotle,” and yet…!

Granted, I make no pretensions that I enjoy or understand it particularly well. The first section, Metaphysics, by which they mean philosophy, re: study of the truth and nature of things, was so abstract and so navel-gazy that I was hard-pressed to give a fuck. Does knowing whether/how something ~really~ exists make the least bit of difference? No? Okay, then can I move on to something that does?

Philosophy: I’m glad that somebody’s doing it, but it is so not my thing.

It also started making less and less sense as I kept wading further in, with the word “something” appearing four times per sentence on average, every noun an abstract one with nary a concrete example in sight, MY KINGDOM FOR A METAPHOR, until I was like, “Are these words even supposed to mean something?”

And that’s when a lightbulb went on, because yes, they do mean something, we’ve had this discussion before. What was throwing me was the prevalence of words like “form,” “substance,” “kind,” “essence,” and “attribute,” which in everyday speech encompass a number of different ideas, but in philosophical writing each have ONE, and ONLY ONE, very specific meaning. Much like my abortive foray into hard sci-fi, I was trying to read it without realizing that I didn’t know the language.

Moral of the story: don’t skip the introduction. Once I knew exactly what was meant by, for example, primary vs secondary substances, or substance vs quality, it started making more sense and I felt like less of an idiot.

Apparently (as I discovered in the introduction) there are two modern approaches to Aristotle’s work: historical and philosophical. The historical approach focuses on how Aristotle’s ideas were shaped by the culture that he lived in, and the effect that his writings had on later generations of thinkers. Most of his writings on natural science, for example, are of only historical interest, because they’re about concrete facts that have either been proven wrong or proven so right that they’re taken for granted these days. Philosophy, meanwhile, can’t exactly get proven right or wrong, so the navel-gazy questions about the nature of the soul that Aristotle put forth in the 300s BC are just as alive and debatable now as they were back then. The Signet edition takes the latter approach, all philosophy all the time, and I really wish it hadn’t.

I want to try this Aristotle experiment again, because there were nuggets here and there that sparked some excellent world-building ideas — in particular, how to incorporate magic into natural science — but I want (A) more commentary and (B) a historical approach.

***

Aristotelian koan of the day:

If animals have souls, how do you account for a worm that can be cut in half and continue living?

Blows my mind, man.

Scholastic Culture of the Middle Ages, by John W. Baldwin (5/107)

This topic is relevant to my interests for the purpose of world-building — specifically for Keilja’s story, because he grows up and becomes a university professor, and there’s more to writing a medieval university than sticking some turrets on UCLA. Initially I bought this book and Charles Homer Haskins’ The Rise of the Universities to get concrete details about university life, such as how classes were chosen and scheduled, where they were held, how students paid for them, what subjects were taught and how classes were conducted, how professors interacted with their students in and outside the classroom, and all the other things that I didn’t even know I didn’t know.

Some interesting facts about medieval academia

War Without Mercy, by John Dower (2/107)

(This book review is long and rather rambling, because I have many things to say about postwar Japan but no real thesis here.)

The first book I read by John Dower was Embracing Defeat, which is about the incredible diversity of ways in which the Japanese rebuilt and redefined their devastated country and national psyche after their defeat in WW2. As I recall, a chapter had been assigned reading in one of my classes, and the professor kindly photocopied it for us but upon finishing the chapter I immediately went out and bought the book itself.

It is a virtuoso piece of history writing — exhaustively researched, but leavened by Dower’s style which is compelling and incredibly humanizing to its subjects. Judging from my bookshelf, one might conclude that I have three interests: queer academia, prostitutes, and postwar Japan. Embracing Defeat was the book that sparked my interest in the third — specifically, in the period of the American occupation that immediately followed Japan’s surrender. There was so much that could have gone so badly, but it didn’t. It would have been so easy for America to flub Japan’s reconstruction the way we’re flubbing Iraq’s, and leave the region in a state that would only lead to more bloodshed and oppression, but we didn’t. For once, we got it right. The postwar occupation is one of the very few moments in history that you can look back on and be justifiably proud of how America acquitted itself.

Not so much during the war, however.