Books read, July 2018

Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Robert B. Cialdini. Exploration of the principles and techniques used by what Cialdini calls “compliance professionals” — anybody whose job is to get you to go along with them. Salespeople, fundraisers, advertisers, interrogators, con artists, etc. I have to admit it’s a little creepy reading this book, identifying all the knee-jerk reflexes we have and how they can be leveraged against us . . . but also very useful for a writer, because it gives me a more solid grounding for figuring out how to get one character to manipulate another. The six broad categories Cialdini identifies are reciprocity, consistency and commitment, social proof, authority, liking, and scarcity; he says up front that he’s leaving out material self-interest because it’s straightforward and self-evident. Just ignore the part in his introduction where he tries to explain participant observation (a bedrock of anthropological fieldwork), because omgwtfbbq no, it isn’t “spying” or “infiltration.”

Rogues, Vagabonds, and Sturdy Beggars: A New Gallery of Tudor and Early Stuart Rogue Literature Exposing the Lives, Times, and Cozening Tricks of the Elizabethan Underworld, ed. Arthur F. Kinney. Last month I read The Elizabethan Underworld, which turns out to be the Cliff Notes for this book. Depending on your background, Cliff Notes are vital; although this has some commentary from Kinney, the bulk of it is primary texts from the genre of “Elizabethan rogue literature,” i.e. pamphlets exposing the tricks and society of such people. At least he modernized the spelling for you? But oy, it’s been a while since I read this much Elizabethan prose. My favorite touch in here that I didn’t get from Salgado’s book previously was a catalogue of various people in Hell and what they were there for, including “the Citizens for their City-sins” — I thought that was an excellent play on words.

The Regency Underworld, Donald A. Low. Moving forward a couple of centuries . . . I liked this one quite a bit, but it’s fairly small. Has a particularly good discussion of the process by which London finally dragged itself to admit the necessity of having actual, y’know, police — there was quite a bit of maneuvering for several decades before the Metropolitan Police Bill of 1829. (Turns out the reason it took so long was that they thought of centralized police as being very <shudder> French, and an unacceptable abridgement of the rights of free Englishmen. The quantity of crime it took before they agreed that a high risk of being robbed and raped and murdered ten feet outside your front door, or even ten feet inside it, was a more severely unacceptable abridgement of the rights of free Englishmen, is astonishing.)

The Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Man, David W. Maurer. If you’ve ever seen the movie The Sting, you basically know this book. It’s a discussion of con artists in the early part of the 20th century, written by someone who apparently managed to conduct what amounts to anthropological fieldwork (the real kind, not the “Cialdini thinks it’s like espionage” kind) among them. The big con is distinguished from the short con by the addition of an element where you send the mark home to get more money, which allows for much bigger scores in the end, but it also tends to feature what they called “the store” — a fake betting hall or stockbroker’s office or whatever, staffed entirely by other con artists, which allows the con mob to control every part of what the mark sees rather than leaving it up to chance. He also gets into questions of what con artists tend to be like, what sorts of marks they target, and other such related topics, not just the cons themselves.

I would love a book on the short con, though; there’s a place in here where Maurer rattles off a list of about two dozen short games and never says anything more about them.

Trail of Lightning, Rebecca Roanhorse. Debut novel from an author currently up for a Hugo and the Campbell Award. I haven’t read much urban fantasy in a while because I am honestly tired of abrasive, psychologically scarred heroines whose stories careen from one crisis or disaster to another with hardly any breathing time in between. This . . . has that. But it also has a post-climate-apocalypse setting where the Navajo Nation, aka Dinétah, has established itself as an independent state, and all the supernatural aspects are drawn from Diné beliefs, and as soon as I saw that I made grabby hands. No vampires here; instead you get things like ch’įįdii* and tsé naayéé. I’m interested enough to read the next book, and hope that it works in a little more space to develop the post-apocalyptic society and the relationships of the characters.

* Not quite spelled correctly because I don’t know how to get HTML to put both an ogonek and an acute accent on that first i. Partway through reading this novel I got down my copy of Diné Bizaad: Speak, Read, Write Navajo to refresh my memory on pronunciation — I studied the language for two weeks in grad school, before the professor unfortunately had to take a leave of absence. It’s kind of a shocker for anyone accustomed to Indo-Europrean langauges, but I’m glad Roanhorse didn’t flinch from using it here.

My own work, read for editing purposes, does not count.

The Black Opera, Mary Gentle. Alternate historical fantasy. I adored the parts of this that were about the characters having to stage an opera in six weeks flat with the literal fate of the world resting on their shoulders. The challenges inherent in doing so are enough to generate plenty of tension and conflict, and it’s rare to see the creative process really put at the forefront of a whole novel like this. Unfortunately, there were also lots of things that annoyed me about the writing: there are many sequences of single-sentence paragraphs, which reads choppily; the text occasionally wanders off into present or future tense for no apparent reason; and there seems to be no pattern to which of the viewpoint character’s thoughts are rendered in italics and which (despite being direct thoughts, not indirectly reported) are in roman type, plus the occasional line of narration italicized as if it were his thoughts. Minor issues, but over the course of a 500-page book they grate — and more fatally, I simply did not give a rat’s ass about the love triangle that was supposed to carry much of the emotional weight of the book. I like how it resolved, but since I wasn’t very invested my liking was more intellectual than anything else . . . and like many other things in the story, the resolution kind of dragged out rather than being delivered as a punch. Which might be realistic, but it makes for less satisfying fiction. So if you love the idea of a novel about creative collaboration under pressure, I recommend this, but it does have its flaws.


London’s Underworld: Three Centuries of Vice and Crime, Fergus Linnane. Normally I don’t report on books I don’t finish, but in this case the DNF wasn’t because of the book’s quality as such. It’s a little disorganized, with some information repeated unnecessarily and other things tossed off in passing without explanation, but the reason I stopped reading is that it would better be subtitled “A Little Bit About the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries But Mostly the Twentieth Century of Vice and Crime.” Since what I was interested in was the older history, I stopped reading when it got past that.

3 Responses to “Books read, July 2018”

  1. trogdor

    Very cool, I’ll probably add some of these to my reading list

  2. Anthony Docimo

    I’m not sure I’d have been able to read on after an intro like that, with phrasing like “spying” & “infiltration”…I guess it gives you advance warning of how much salt to take with the other chapters?

    Maybe the Dinotopians were right after all: time moves forward, but history repeats (rights of Free Englishmen -> rights of American guns) *sigh* 🙂

    Unless somebody switched them (which would not be a first, given its Wikipedia), this may help: į, įį, ǫ, ǫǫ, ą́ ,ę́, į́, ǫ́

    • swantower

      In context it’s clear that what Cialdini was doing was stuff like paying to attend sales instruction courses. So he wasn’t doing anything I would consider massively unethical — winning the trust of some community and then betraying that trust.

Comments are closed.