Monday, July 11, 2022

Reviewing the Mail: Week of July 9, 2022

The epic trilogy of remainders ends with...some miscellaneous books that didn't fit cleanly into any category, actually. A couple of things from the mystery/thriller world, a couple from the moderately-popular-nonfiction world, and I'll call it a day.

Again, this is stuff I bought, but largely because it was available at remainder prices and I was putting together a big order. But that's one of the most fun ways to book-shop: grabbing things that look vaguely interesting, because why not?

The Honorable Schoolboy is a John Le Carre novel from 1977, one of the many about his series character George Smiley and, I think, part of the "Karla Trilogy" of the mid-70s. I've read a couple of Le Carre books (early novels A Murder of Quality and The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, plus his memoir The Pigeon Tunnel) , and have been accumulating more of them - in large part because I like the trade-dress of this Penguin series. (Though, since this one is remaindered, my guess is that they'll be redesigned very soon, and so my plan to get all of them in matching covers will be dashed on the rocks.) So I don't expect to get to this any time soon, but I might need to buy more like this quickly while I can - the life of a book accumulator!

Trouble Is What I Do is a short novel by Walter Mosley in his Leonid McGill series, from 2020. Back when I was reading mysteries quickly - which is back in the days when I was reading a lot more books to begin with, and reading at speed, because my job was to read books and have opinions about them - I really liked his Easy Rawlins series, and I've intermittently trotted out my theory that Mosley would be considered one of the great writers of our time if he weren't both Black and writing genre fiction. The only thing of his I seem to have covered in the Years of This Blog is the oddball sex novel Killing Johnny Fry, probably because, hey, a sex novel! (Prurient interest is definitely A Thing.) This one is short, so I may just get to it soon, and, who knows?, that could get me back on a Mosley kick.

Peculiar Questions and Practical Answers is one of those books not credited to any human being, even though I'm pretty sure there's one poor person who did almost all of the work. It is a compendium of weird questions asked of the reference desk at what we are required to call the august New York Public Library, and of course the answers that those questions received. It also has a lot of illustrations, including a cover, by Barry Blitt. This is a book designed for the smallest room in the house, and it will live there, for at least a little while, in the near future.

And last from the whole big remainder order is William Poundstone's The Doomsday Calculation. I've been reading Poundstone since Big Secrets when I was a teenager, so I'm surprised that his photo on the back cover of this book looks comparatively youthful (he looks only about as old as I feel, and he must have a couple of decades on me). I seem to have only read his Priceless during the life of this blog; he's mostly turned into a financial journalist who writes big-idea, business-adjacent books every few years, and I was in business-book publishing for about a decade there, so I may have been too close to that particular sausage-making apparatus. In any case, this is one about Bayesian statistics, as applied to what seems to be a reverse Drake Equation, about life on earth.

To unpack slightly: Bayesian thinking is the continuous-updating model, in which the odds for something are modified by subsequent events to, in theory, provide ever-better predictions of whatever thing one is trying to predict, as long as one is trying to predict something that can be well modeled by math. The Drake Equation tries to codify the odds for life elsewhere in the universe, by taking all of the expected sifting events - stars that live long enough, planets in the right zone, life forming, multi-cellular life, etc. - giving them all wild guesses for probabilities, and then confidently saying, for example, the Milky Way must have 3.6 technological civilizations in it, including ourselves. And so the Doomsday Calculation is a Drakeseque way of looking at the ways that humanity may go extinct, with added Bayesianism to make it seem really, really likely in the very near future.

I will have to read the book to see if I can buy any of that.

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