Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn. Cthulhu has been using “Why settle for the lesser evil” since the DOLE vs CLINTON campaign in 1996. But not it’s moved on (owing to maybe Cthulhu may not be the lesser evil?) in 2016 to the even more more appropriate for 2020: NO LIVES MATTER. Let’s see if he can win this time.
I read a bunch of stuff in 2018 so far. Some of these you should read, some maybe not.
I started off the year LIGHT because I had just finished a heavy history of the early American Colonies that took months for me to get through (The Barbarous Years). Heavy history is the real deal compared to the pop stuff most people read that I also, shamefully, like, but if you’re not in a scholarly mood, they can be rough.
The first book of the year was a Dashiell Hammett that I hadn’t gotten to yet: RED HARVEST (not the bullshit starwars novel). Cool name? Well that’s what the fuck it is. The first half is excellent and then about the middle end, when one of the main characters gets knocked off, it feels a bit rushed to me, like Hammet didn’t want to revel in the final carnage and high body count (or felt it would be unrealistic for his protagonist to survive if shit got too crazy). Overall a strong book in the genre and a fun read. Recommended.
Second, I stayed the course on the Pulp Crime but got into heavier, more nihilistic stuff with Jim Thompson’s Pop. 1280. This is a classic untrustworthy narrator style book with a self-proclaimed idiot Sheriff of a small town who turns out to be quite different than he tries to lead the reader to believe. This is one of Jim Thompson’s best. Highly Recommended.
Since I borrowed it from a dude at work, I was obliged to read Guns, Germs and Steel next. This is on the poppy side of history books but the author’s experience and angle through the narrative is unique, though I think the full extent of it would take many volumes. What he sets out to answer to his Polynesian friend is why the white folks have all the good “cargo” and he does so by showing that development of different foods, domestication of certain animals lead to people in Northern Europe to become the dominant group (until they ended their dominance via WW1 and WW2, like all groups do, by annihilating themselves in internal conflicts— just like the Mongols and Romans did). While “guns” is in the title, it’s really about FOOD, DOMESTICATION and GERMS– but that ain’t a sexy title. I disagree with his assessment that leader’s decisions do not truly influence the course of history of humanity. Caesar and at least three of the Mongol conquerors changed things beyond recognition, yet he may argue in turn that they were playing with the same set of germs and steel where Polynesia and the Native Americans were not. Recommended.
After this, I planned to read Twain due to promptings from Maat, but I realized I had not read the entire Border Trilogy yet and plowed through All the Pretty Horses in about a week, and then started on the beastly The Crossing, which is a much longer work. All the Pretty is an excellent read and not too heavy, much like No Country for Old Men (a Jim Thompson novel if I ever saw one!) and The Road. The main character, while incredibly capable at everything he does, is still believable and the mess he gets in with his friend Lacey is as interesting as it is horrifying. This book was hugely influential on a lot of SCHLOCK films and books that got way more attention (Horse Whisperer, Brokeback mountain which shamefully steals lines of dialog DIRECTLY from All the Pretty Horses). Leave those aside and experience the real deal instead. Don’t watch the movie.
The Crossing is more along the lines of Suttree (which is on par with Blood Meridian) but it doesn’t seem so at first, and I think the first 120 pages or so are astounding (the wolf part). After the first act of the book, you realize that this is going to be a picaresque and not as tight as All the Pretty Horses story wise. The book reminds me most of Stuart Little, except with a lot more violence and overt philosophy. While All the Pretty deals with an amazingly talented cowboy, the Crossing deals with a much less ubermench as the main character, Billy, in fact you could say he’s not all that great at what he does, so is more relatable to the reader (like Suttree). He gets in bad troubles after some really bad things happen to his family and his brother and then there’s a nuke (yes a nuke), but Billy is more of an observer than actor (like Suttree). In fact, his brother seems to have a much more exciting and book worthy existence than Billy does, and I think that’s one of the lessons of the novel. While All the Pretty Horses is the most popular of these, some people really love this book out of the trilogy. The beginning is so sad, I had to put it down for awhile, and then it gets worse.
Cities of the Plain is the sad ending to the Border Trilogy as it closes out the cowboy (and even rural) era of the United States in the wake of the Second World War and the rise of the Military Industrial Complex. The book involves characters from both of the previous works and is a pretty rough ride at times. The core plot revolves around the All the Pretty Horses guy and things go terribly wrong for everyone and the story ends in 2002, so the whole Trilogy goes from 1940 to then. The best part of the book for me is when the cowboys go hunting for a pack of dogs that have been killing calf on the range, you want to find out how people should write stuff, look at that part. This is a sad book as the end of the characters is also the end of a way of life. What happened to Lacey?
I recommend these highly, and if one has never read McCarthy, probably start with All the Pretty Horses or Suttree. I will need to read The Crossing and Cities of the Plain again to really assess how these fit into his whole body of work. Obviously these books are an absolutely surreal experience and the prose is unmatched and not to be taken lightly. I read these on the bus and would get to very important parts when people were talking or playing their shitty songs on their shitty phone speakers.
So next is Twain, lots and lots of Twain (then probably Blood Meridian or Suttree again, YAY!).
After getting nuked twice and having the USA act as the external military for over 50 years, Japan has voted to begin re-militarization in the face of looming external threats. This means a couple things to me. 1) Japan’s near threats, like North Korea and China, have been pressuring them and they need to react. 2) The United States is no longer in a position to guarantee the safety of Japan in the face of their mounting external threats. While the second one seems scarier, likely it is a combination of both. Since the US fights in the Middle East (an area that should have been put under complete Allied control and colonization after WW2 and remained that way forever–instead they just have Israel), it’s unlikely they could fire up another major theater of war in the East and do much with Japan only fielding 75,000 in their local defense force.
Needless to say, this is the end of an era and an historic shift in power balance in the East.
I read a bunch of history stuff this year along with my usual sword and sorcery and noir pap and these are some random thoughts on each if you have an interest. All three of these are extremely accessible for the non-historian, and with the exception of the last one, are quite short to boot.
Before reading this book on the Persian Empire (and Meades and Assyrians by extension) I had no idea what cruising meant in Sparta, I knew it as something people did with muscle cars down on the south side. Yet, it has a different meaning when applied to Spartans. We have this vision of the austere, martially focused and hard-hearted Spartans going to war together and fighting against the decadent Athenians and Persians. Well they were all those things as you had to kill a HELOT during your early teen years as a right of passage (yes, in the movie I know it was a tiger or wolf or something, but in real life it was a person and it wasn’t a straight up fight/kill, it was supposed to be a sneak-kill to boot), and they lived in barrack most of their lives. Despite being all bad ass in the movies (which to some extent they were in real life) the actual citizen Spartans also had people to do all their work (Helots: who were basically slaves) and were always worried about the helots revolting, which they eventually did. None of these things may surprise you, but Sparta’s habit of cruising might. Basically, once you got to be about 12 you could be legally raped at any time by any older members of the city (not Helots!). Girls AND boys would both be raped, and for the boys usually they would get other types of favors from their male rapists after the deed or deeds. The girls, of course, were not allowed to get pregnant while being cruised, so it was up the bum and no babies for them too. The title of this post comes from a line in this book describing Spartan wives as anally proficient virgins out of the gate. Quite disturbing and really one of the punchlines of Tom Holland’s excellent PERSIAN FIRE. For me, this book filled a gap of pre-Persian empire history between the Assyrians and the Persians attacking Greece across the Hellespont and Marathon and all that. As one of the best currently working narrative hostorians, and like Holland’s RUBICON, it’s highly recommended.
Secondly, I re-read Caesar’s Conquest of Gaul. This was an amazing read as it’s written by the man himself (in third person no less) about him dismantling in detail the petty empires of southern and northern France (with the Germans getting in the mix a bit too). There are a few pretty disturbing parts due to things NOT said rather than what Caesar is writing. For example, one Gaulish town that had a big wall around it had a Gaul army swing by for a visit despite the townspeople’s wishes since they were being pursued by Caeser. Soon after, the town became surrounded by the Romans who they themselves built a second wall around the town and then an OUTER wall to protect their inner wall from counter attack. The Army of Gauls that were in the town ejected the town’s original inhabitants (you know, the old, and women and children) but they had no where to go as Caesar would not let them through his walls– so they stayed outside the town between the walls until they fucking died of exposure and hunger. So, I think it was Dan Carlin who said something like– ‘go ask the thousands of people that Caesar killed if he was a ‘great’ man or not.’ To the Gauls, he was a right bastard for sure. Like Machiavelli’s The Prince, Conquest of Gaul is a pretty good handbook on how to fuck people over and how to not get fucked yourself in real life, as well as a poignant view into one of histories greatest figures.
Lastly in the history area is a friggin’ monster of a tome I picked up on a whim and found was as amazing as it was horrifying. A DISTANT MIRROR by Barbra Tuchman details 1300 – 1400AD in Europe (mostly France and England) during what I think could be the worst time in history for human beings on the planet Earth. This hundred years, in France especially, make the Dark Ages look like a fucking Mayday Carnival in comparison. The Black Plague depopulation, a completely corrupt and luxury focused Catholic Church that goes into a non-protestant Schism (it wasn’t about doctrine, there were just two popes at once and neither would abdicate) whose response to the black plague was to increase the price of pardons and the like to those who were left and who would persecute ascetic monasteries who weren’t as greedy since it made the actions of the mother church look bad, and let us not forget the Free Companies that ravaged France and northern Italy for the early part of the century. Lay on top of that completely destructive private wars between noble families (like some sort of West Virginian blood feud except these people had lots of money and castles and towns and cannons) and you have a simply horrifying hundred years. The book loosely follows the life of Engerrand De Coucy, an actually pretty swell noble who owned a massive (now destroyed) castle in Picardy during the century. I recommend this book heartily but it is extremely LOOOONG and took me a month or so to push through. It’s also quite amazing to me that a book of this sort was written by a woman. If you are looking for some of the historical influence to A Game of Thrones or Liebowitz and the Wild Horse Woman (who’s central plot is the schism in the church), this is a singular read.
And it is now in the realm of pretty fucking awesome. Last year, if you bought Rome: Total War 2 it was a bit of a mistake for everyone involved, players, developers, fans, families of all involved. I’m a long time fan of the series, having started with Medieval Total War back when it was sprites on a 3D map (looots of spriiites!!!) and it was a great game, though the fact that it was one single fight per territory (you didn’t move your armies around inside territories in the older games) made it a bit small. Reminiscent of Ghenghis Khan 2 by KOEI, it was still totally awesome. Rome 1 brought the jump to 3d and was, along with Warcraft 3, the best game of the decade. While the newer games were amazing in their own right, especially Medieval 2 and Napoleon Total War, something happened during the second run of the Shogun Series to sour me on the battles– and while the strategic part of the game is important as a framework– it’s all about the fucking battles. Suddenly, they felt cartoony and too fast and too arcade like, which is silly to say since the graphic details went through the roof in quality. When I first saw the asymmetric uniform designs of the units in Medieval 2, I got a huge claymore-sized boner for real. Yet the battle gameplay in Shogun 2 was not good despite the game’s overall polish, I just could not get into it. Rome 2, at first, followed suit much to many player’s disappointment.
With a series that has so much going for it, and has such pedigree it was shocking to me to suddenly get a Roman Shower from the company with the 2013 release. I played for about 20 hours (a SLIVER of the amount that I would normally play a big TW release) and uninstalled the fucker until a couple months ago, when I noticed that some of the guys that make TW battle videos had switched back from Medieval 2 to Rome 2 after apparently giving up on the game. I checked out some battles and noticed that formations worked much better, phalanxes actually PHALANXED and the archery didn’t look so shitty like it did in Shogun and Early TW. Added to this, the Emperor Edition upgrade was free to all previous purchasers which included a massive campaign detailing the Roman Civil War.
Now I’m merely 85 hours into the grand campaign and I can say I won’t be going back to any of the other Total War games for a long while. Over the year since release, they shined the hell out of this game. Performance is much better, the battle AI, the battle mechanics and the flow of the game has been completely tweaked. While battles are the most important core part of the game, the campaign play is actually where you spend most of your time and it’s far superior to the launch version. The AI especially is now quite brutal and with suprising frequency will cause you all sorts of problems– including sea borne invasions which were impossible for the AI to pull off before Napoleon Total War (just a few versions ago!). So you could sit as England or Italy and just send out armies to conquer everything around you on the ocean, with no chance or reprisal. Not so anymore. I had a really tough time as Rome early on. What’s brilliant about the AI now is that if they percieve you are strong, they won’t mess with you, but if you are seen as weak, like losing a bunch of battles in a row, they will join in and try to take a piece of you before someone else does.
Later in the campaign game it becomes less about gobbling up small kingdoms and more about HUGE wars that take decades and decades to finish up (if ever) with massive empires. Since coalitions of factions normally stick together, and factions will become client states of you (unlike other TW games where the option was there but they never would actually do it), sometimes taking out a small kingdom on your border leads to war against EVERYONE on the side of a map. I found it out the hard way when I accidentally went to war with the entire Achemedian empire (Persia and the like). I was able to eventually take the war to them, but not before many legions were swallowed in the desert and mountains of Asia Minor…
So here are a bunch of pictures. This is a long post about a really great game that finally came into it’s own. I think the developers have done right by the series after a really fucking huge misstep last year.