What non-Go book are you reading right now?

Loose end #1: I finally finished my rereading of Montaigne’s Essays more than a month ago, but never got around to posting about it. What I wanted to say is that my first thought afterward was I would like to start over for a third time. He has a fine epigrammatic/aphoristic thought on almost every page. In my youth, I collected such things, or at least wrote down the page numbers on the fly-leaf, but Montaigne has too many to do that. I did jot down one that seemed both true and original: “Covetousness has nothing so characteristic about it as ingratitude” (Book 3, #6).

Loose end #2: I also finally finished Mara and Dann: An Adventure by Doris Lessing, which I read episodically over a long time. I strongly suspect that the subtitle is an ironic statement. This is in a sense a rebuke to the popular notion of “adventure.” I am reminded of Erich Remarque’s comment at the beginning of All Quiet on the Western Front, “War is not an adventure.” Lessing has driven home for me my feeling that we are living in a comic-book culture. This is most obvious in movies, many of which are literal renditions of comic books. It is also dominant in today’s SF, which is relentlessly sensationalistic for commercial reasons.

Lessing shows a brother and sister simply trying to survive in a chaotic, tribal world, centuries after an environmental apocalypse. As noted in my previous post about this book, Lessing avoids the brutal sensational tropes that most people associate with a post-apocalypse story. Instead she presents a realistic story in a matter-of-fact manner. Horrible things happen, but they are not springboards for reader thrills. Most of all, the characters are real people, they gradually change as they age, and Lessing achieves this by sprinkling subtle, enlightening details throughout the story.

Ironically, despite its awesome writing and characterization, I can’t recommend this book to my group, because several people would hate it. It is, I admit, a slow read—engrossing, but not at all compelling. This is not a contradiction. The story is in a sense “plotless,” because the big events happen in a random way (just like most of real life). Having no idea where the story is going or what may happen next, the reader is far less motivated to continue reading. I had to read it in 10- or 20-page chunks.

In view of this book, and @fiddlehead’s great review of Lessing’s first book, I clearly need to prioritize Lessing for my future reading.

Next: I’ve started Octavia Butler’s Dawn for my book group. I’m looking forward to this because I have never read her work. Butler’s rise to spectacular prominence in the field occurred during my 23-year hiatus from SF. I have picked up several of her novels over the years, but haven’t yet read any of them.

Edit: typo


This summer has left me little time or energy for reading. In those circumstances you want something you can read in brief installments, and it would help a lot to have it presented in accessible language, avoiding jargon and tortured phrasings that can set your brain spinning on a warm and humid summer day. The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius satisfies both needs and offers plenty more.

Marcus (apparently that’s how scholars refer to him) never intended for this collection of exhortations and reaffirmations to be read by anyone but himself. He was training his mind to become a fuller and more effective repository of that stoic philosophy for which he is now the best known proponent. What sense are we to make of this life? When, as Marcus points out, Alexander the Great and his mule driver are likewise obliterated and rearranged as though neither had ever existed, what’s the point in aspiring to anything? How are we to cope with life’s randomness, its all too frequent cruelty? For the stoics it’s about remaining true to your nature and accepting your part in a vastly greater plan, whether that leads you to become Alexander or that mule driver or whatever. Accept too that nature simply does what it does, sometimes at your convenience and sometimes not.

Marcus isn’t what you would call a barrel of laughs, and indeed his rejection of life’s more trivial and fleeting concerns can seem rather prissy and high-handed at times. I would caution against taking that too much to heart. Again, he was admonishing himself and simply held himself to a higher standard even as his stoic convictions compelled him to treat others with tact and forbearance when possible.

You’re unlikely to encounter any ideas here that you haven’t met before. Marcus breaks no new ground philosophically. The book ultimately owes its popularity to the fact that Marcus just keeps serving it up, returning to the same themes, the same points repeatedly. His mental exercise can become the reader’s own in a daily workout sort of way. I found it went well with my morning coffee, and it typically put me in a better frame of mind to begin the day.

The material is organized into twelve books. Many entries consist of a sentence or two while the lengthiest might run for a page or so. Here’s a fairly representative sample that begins Book Twelve:

"Everything you’re trying to reach—by taking the long way round—you could have right now, this moment. If you’d only stop thwarting your own attempts. If you’d only let go of the past, entrust the future to Providence, and guide the present toward reverence and justice.

Reverence: so you’ll accept what you’re alotted. Nature intended it for you, and you for it.

Justice: so that you’ll speak the truth, frankly and without evasions, and act as you should—and as other people deserve.

Don’t let anything deter you: other peoples’ misbehaviour, your own misperceptions, What People Will Say, or the feelings of the body that covers you (let the affected part take care of those.) And if, when it’s time to depart, you shunt everything aside except your mind and the divinity within…if it isn’t ceasing to live that you’re afraid of but never beginning to live properly…then you’ll be worthy of the world that made you.

No longer an alien in your own land.

No longer shocked by everyday events —as if they were unheard-of aberrations.

No longer at the mercy of this, or that."

And I’ve been quietly marveling at how a first century Roman inadvertently reached out across the ages and became a source of comfort and guidance for others, many of them living in places the very existence of which he could scarcely have imagined.


I’m halfway through the first book of a song of ice and fire: a game of thrones. Watched the series but love the books even more. Would recommend


Octavia E. Butler’s Dawn (1987), the beginning of the Xenogenesis trilogy, is awesome in every way. (I hate using that word again, but I really do feel awed by every aspect of the book.) Reading this on top of Mara and Dann has restored my belief in science fiction’s potential to be great literature.

Dawn presents one of the finest descriptions of truly alien extraterrestrials and their culture. The story is absorbing, but not an easy read because of its gnawing atmosphere of justified paranoia, manipulation, and enslavement. Two of its violent moments are so emotionally powerful that I had to set the book aside for a day each time to avoid being overwhelmed.

Nevertheless, what I like most about Dawn is its quietness. It has only a few very brief episodes of violence, and nothing in it aims at sensationalistic thrills. In its quiet way, it profoundly probes two familiar themes (among others): Do the ends justify the means, and what does it mean to be human?

The story leaves behind a haunting aftertaste. What a colossal tragedy that Butler died so young!

Next up is the sequel to Mara and Dann, The Story of General Dann and Mara’s Daughter, Griot and the Snow Dog, which I want to read while M&D is still fresh in my mind. After that, I must follow up with the rest of the Xenogenesis trilogy.


So was it good? Would you recommend it?

EDIT: This was supposed to be a short post but I don’t know how to be concise.

I have finished reading the third book in Lian Hearn’s series of four books The tale of Shikanoko:

  1. Emperor of the Eight Islands (April 2016)
  2. Autumn Princess, Dragon Child (June 2016)
  3. Lord of the Darkwood (August 2016)
  4. The Tengu’s Game of Go (September 2016)

Needless to say, the fourth book’s title was a convincing argument to start reading this series.

I read Lian Hearn’s Tale of the Otori 20 years ago, and they left a strong impression on me. I was quite young at the time and these were some of the first books I’ve read that didn’t adopt a manichean view with a good protagonist facing evil antagonists. In Tale of the Otori, the majority of characters are not fundamentally good or evil. Instead, they are a bunch of warlord families with conflicting objectives, and so they end up killing eachother. Takeo is the descendant of a clan of mystic assassins; his father left the clan to become a Catholic vegan. The clan inevitably finds his father and has him killed, but instead of making all ninjas appearing as evil assassins, the story goes on with Takeo going back to the clan and becoming a student ninja for a while. Then he’s adopted by a warlord and becomes a warlord himself and becomes involved in all the wars that have been going on. The character of warlord Arai Daiichi in particular unsettled me. He starts out as Kaede’s main ally when she is a prisoner at the beginning of the trilogy, and then later he becomes the main antagonist. This was quite unheard of for a young reader like me. Still, Takeo and Kaede are the main protagonists, and anyone who opposes them is an antagonist, so it is a bit manichean after all in the end.

The tale of Shikanoko is even better in that regard. Despite being the eponymous character, Shikanoko is only one character of many and he certainly doesn’t have the “good hero” vibe of Otori Takeo. He just happens to be in all the wrong places at all the wrong times and gets involved in all the conflicts. He also makes a lot of bad decisions.

There is only one character in the whole series who is depicted as truly evil, the Prince Abbot, a warlord who is also a sorcerer. This character is recognised as evil by every other sorcerer, because he uses evil magic. I found him very reminiscent of Sauron in Lord of the Rings, using evil magic to see his enemies even when they are far away. But he’s not recognised as evil by the other warlords. Some warlords ally with him, some warlords oppose him, but it’s all circumstantial and related to everyone’s own personal interests, not to concepts of good or evil.

There is also one character who is “pure”, the young emperor. This is something that’s often seen in Japanese and Chinese tales, but never in western tales as far as I’m aware: although there is a ton of warlords constantly fighting, they all recognise that the Emperor is pure and good, and that they should never directly attack the Emperor because it would displease Heaven. I mean, French kings also pretended that they had a divine right to rule, and Pharaohs also said they were gods, but it always stroke me as just an excuse they put up to gain more power, and their rivals didn’t really believe it and would be happy to dethrone them, take their place, and claim that they have a divine right instead. It’s different in oriental mythology. It’s not the emperor himself who claims to have a divine right, it’s everyone else. In fact the emperor is just a kid, not old enough to rule, but still everyone respects him. If you’re a greedy warlord who wants power, then your best bet is not to dethrone the emperor, it’s just to become the emperor’s main general or main advisor, like China’s Cao Cao or France’s Richelieu.

In Tale of Shikanoko, the evil Prince Abbot has a plan to dethrone the Emperor and replace him by someone else over whom he can have more influence, but the only reason he succeeds in doing that is because he manages to convince other warlords that this other emperor candidate has been designated by heaven. As soon as the impostor is on the throne, the region starts being affected by plagues and droughts and floods, and the Prince Abbot’s allies start to realise that they might have chosen the wrong side and they start doubting the Prince Abbot.

Tale of the Otori is set in a medieval Japan, with some hints that magic exists but barely any actual magic seen in the books, except for a few supernatural abilities inherited in the ninja clan. Japan is never named explicitly, and the Catholic religion which I mentioned briefly is also never named as such, so it might be a fantasy world instead of real Japan, but it is all very strongly inspired by medieval Japan and might as well be it.

Tale of Shikanoko is set earlier, a hundred or several hundred years prior to Tale of the Otori. There is much more magic, sorcerers, mythical creatures, ghosts and spirits. So apparently there has been a “dark ages” between the two, where magic disappeared or was forgotten. And indeed there are several hints in Tale of Shikanoko that these are “the last good days”.

I really enjoyed how every warlord brought about their own demise. Pretty much every character in the story makes stupid decisions at one time or another, motivated by greed, resentment, jealousy, lust, or some other very human flaw.

The only two places that seem safe of these flaws are the two convents. These two places are described as a safe haven where women go when they have decided they no longer want to take part in a world where men’s stupidity keeps ruining everything again and again. There is one convent for adult women, and one convent for young girls. Later we learn that the convent for young girls only existed thanks to the donations of the woman who owns all brothels, and when young girls become too old for the convent they are either sold as wives or become prostitutes. So this is quite depressing. Later again the convent is burnt by a warlord, and a wise old woman comments that these were the last good days for women and that a very long age of man dominion is just starting.

The story takes place over quite a few years, sometime very dense with lots of battles being fought and won and lost, and sometimes with long periods that are summed up so that the characters get some time to grow. Losers go into exile, they change their names so they don’t get killed by the winners, they grow up, finally they decide that they want revenge, they amass some forces, collect some allies, regroup and fight new battles. Rinse and repeat. Although I’m describing it in a cynical way, it’s actually a great formula and it’s pretty cool to see the characters grow up, learn from their mistakes, get a better understanding of who they are and what they want, and then make different mistakes.

There is a mention of the game of go at the beginning of the first book. Kazumaru’s father sees two Tengu playing the game of go. Instead of staying hidden like anyone else would have, he walks over to the two Tengu, says hi, and plays a game of go against one of them. He loses and dies. The Tengu are described as benevolent mystical creatures throughout the books, but apparently you should not lose a game of go against them. Kazumazu’s father is an important lord, and all the inheritance goes to Kazumaru; but since he’s too young, Kazumaru’s uncle becomes regent in the meantime. Needless to say, the uncle immediately sets his mind on killing Kazumaru. Kazumaru is believed dead, bud saved by a deer and a sorcerer, and consequently becomes Shika no ko, the deer’s child, destined to become both a powerful warlord and a powerful sorcerer. Throughout the books Shikanoko keeps dreaming about this encounter of his father with a Tengu, and compares pretty much every sound he hears with the sound of go stones on a go board, although we never actually see humans play go, ever.

In the third book there is a half-human character who is approached by a Tengu, who becomes his teacher, and they do play some games of go together, although at first it looks like go is just a pastime they do when they are too tired for physical training or other lessons. Then the Tengu compares the world to a game of go, and the character is asked whether he’s going to be a go stone, or the go player. Looking at the title of the fourth book, I’m guessing the metaphor is going to become a bit more precise in the fourth book.


@ArsenLapin1, I’m sorry—and a little embarrassed—I hardly remember anything but I think I must have liked it b/c otherwise I’d remember more :sweat_smile: So… I’m afraid the GoodReads reviews will give you better information than I can. BUT I’d focus more on the better reviews than on the worse.

Anyway, it was a cheap (b/c used) copy, and a relatively quick read b/c it is a small book, and I think I learned a little bit from it but not really much, otherwise (like above) I’d remember more (as compared to, for example, “I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life” by Andrew Yang, which really blew my mind).

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I was able to borrow a copy of this five-novel collection and finally finished the entire series earlier this summer. I also got around to reading Dune, which I just finished last night. It was great!


Global Crisis: War, Climate Change and Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century

by Geoffrey Parker

Revolutions, droughts, famines, invasions, wars, regicides – the calamities of the mid-seventeenth century were not only unprecedented, they were agonisingly widespread. A global crisis extended from England to Japan, and from the Russian Empire to sub-Saharan Africa. North and South America, too, suffered turbulence. The distinguished historian Geoffrey Parker examines first-hand accounts of men and women throughout the world describing what they saw and suffered during a sequence of political, economic and social crises that stretched from 1618 to the 1680s. Parker also deploys scientific evidence concerning climate conditions of the period, and his use of ‘natural’ as well as ‘human’ archives transforms our understanding of the World Crisis. Changes in the prevailing weather patterns during the 1640s and 1650s – longer and harsher winters, and cooler and wetter summers – disrupted growing seasons, causing dearth, malnutrition, and disease, along with more deaths and fewer births. Some contemporaries estimated that one-third of the world died, and much of the surviving historical evidence supports their pessimism.

Parker’s demonstration of the link between climate change and worldwide catastrophe 350 years ago stands as an extraordinary historical achievement. And the contemporary implications of his study are equally important: are we at all prepared today for the catastrophes that climate change could bring tomorrow?


PS Reading the Dutch version :grinning:


In 1998 freelance journalist Barbara Ehrenreich returned to her blue collar roots in an attempt to determine whether somebody not on government assistance could scratch out an actual living by working in the low wage sector. The roughly two year experiment took her through three distinct phases; first as a waitress in her home state of Florida, then working for a housecleaning service in Portland, Maine, and finally as a Walmart “associate” in Minneapolis. The end result was a stunning expose called Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. What she discovered was that the fabled American work ethic (sometimes declared extinct by the managerial class) is in fact alive and well but ultimately futile in a system that has quite simply broken faith with the working class.

If making a living amounts to more than providing the monthly rent plus food, gasoline and a few personal care items, very few low wage workers appear to be making it. In the first place, few have a sufficient nest egg to establish themselves in an apartment, and so must seek accomodation at a motel, perhaps a rental cabin far from the job site, or, in more extreme cases, their vehicle. Some combine their resources with co-workers but are often subject to the whims of the co-worker’s spouse or boyfriend/girlfriend. These arrangements are by nature houses on shifting sand.

Food is about what you’d expect in such circumstances, junk food for the most part. As for landing a second job, it’s a time-consuming process, often involving a significant expenditure in gasoline. Working out the shifts can be problematic. And even with these obstacles overcome, one is still just scraping by more often than not.

Ehrenreich is repeatedly struck by the apparent passivity of the low wage workforce, how easily they seem to capitulate. But the corporate culture that directs them is pervasive and finds a thousand little ways to reinforce their self-image as highly expendable drones. It concerns everything from “gossip” to washroom breaks to moments of idleness (the so called time theft.) Strict limits are imposed even on the materials necessary to perform the job. In the housecleaning job use of water is to be minimal, the company generally favouring a more cosmetic approach to cleaning—that is, a spray bottle and a quick wipe. During a lull in her waitressing job, Ehrenreich avoids committing the dreaded time theft by freshening some unsold desserts, only to then be chastised for using extra whipped cream.

This atmosphere can sometimes induce a mentality eerily reminiscent of an abused wife. In arguably the book’s most wrenching scene, a member of Ehrenreich’s cleaning crew, already looking pale and undernourished, insists on working through an obvious ankle injury because she can’t bear to think of how the group’s Svengali-like male supervisor may react. The old truism that a falsehood repeated often enough will eventually be believed seems to operate here.

Barbara Ehrenreich is a fine writer, and this is one of those books you can turn to virtually any page and find a passage you immediately want to reread. Here she is on an off day, still reeling from the whirlwind of change she’s lately experienced and turning rather desperately to an old time revival meeting for stimulation:

“The preaching goes on, interrupted with dutiful “amens.” It would be nice if someone would read this sad-eyed crowd the Sermon on the Mount, accompanied by a rousing commentary on income inequality and the need for a hike in the minimum wage. But Jesus makes his appearance here only as a corpse; the living man, the wine-guzzling vagrant and precocious socialist, is never once mentioned, nor anything he ever had to say. Christ crucified rules, and it may be that the true business of modern Christianity is to crucify him again and again so that he can never get a word out of his mouth. I would like to stay around for the speaking in tongues, should it occur, but the mosquitoes, worked into a frenzy by all this talk of His blood, are launching a full-scale attack. I get up to leave, timing my exit for when the preacher’s metronomic head movements have him looking the other way, and walk out to search for my car, half expecting to find Jesus out there in the dark, gagged and tethered to a tent pole.”

The malaise continues today, unabated. Assigning blame isn’t necessarily as straightforward as it may appear, but what does seem certain is that there is plenty of it to go around, and that society is in need of some great reckoning or recalibration. When or even how this might happen is anyone’s guess. Books like Nickel and Dimed serve to keep the discussion going. Though the numbers have changed since the books publication, it has lost none of its relevance.


Fascinating book by Prof. Edmund Richardson.

This review describes very well the fascinating life and wanderings of Charles Mason, a deserted soldier of the Bengal artillery who was fascinated by Alexandria and Alexander the Great and set out to find this lost city.

Two quotes from this review:

Masson had also been the first western archaeologist to visit the ancient cities of Harappa and Mohenjo Daro. It was he who had first made known the lost Hellenistic Buddhist golden age of Gandhara by digging up what are still the earliest extant images of the Buddha. His most spectacular find was the solid-gold, garnet-encrusted Bimaran casket that is now one of the British Museum’s greatest treasures. Here classical figures of the Buddha stand under arcades of round arches, muscles rippling beneath the diaphanous folds of his toga. He stands with half-closed eyes, his hair oiled and groomed into a topknot; his face is full and round; and the lips firm and proud – the Buddha cast in the form of Apollo.

Under the protection of the highly intelligent and curious Crown Prince of Kabul, Akbar Khan, and armed with a copy of Arrian’s Life of Alexander the Great , Masson became the first westerner to explore Afghanistan’s ancient archaeology. Following in Alexander’s footsteps, he methodically excavated Buddhist stupas and Kushan palaces and before long had located the remains of the lost Alexandria.


I finished Doris Lessing’s The Story of General Dann and Mara’s Daughter, Griot and the Snow Dog (2005) a couple weeks ago, but have been procrastinating on writing about it, because it is hard to describe. This sequel to Mara and Dann was Lessing’s penultimate novel, published when she was 86. At times the story seemed a bit rambling and confusing, and I thought it represented a slight falling off of Lessing’s powers. However, I am unsure now.

It’s hard to say because the author adopts an unusual style and tone. The sentences and language remain simple, but instead of using the usual limited third-person viewpoint with scenic narration, she often uses an omniscient viewpoint with summary narration, sometimes telling more than a year’s events in one or two sentences. This is a storyteller’s voice, the stuff of legends. However, she doesn’t explicitly frame it that way. (In contrast, Jack London’s wonderful novelette, “The Scalet Plague,” really is framed as a campfire tale told by the last survivor.)

The first part of the book has a long digression when Dann satisfies his curiosity by descending into the Mediterranean Basin (largely dry) and visiting the Greek islands. This owes something, I think, to John Christopher’s great, but little known, apocalyptic novel, A Wrinkle in the Skin (aka, The Ragged Edge). The characterization in this episode is wonderful, with Dann showing his skills in befriending people and inspiring them to great undertakings. However, he eventually returns to Africa, to The Centre, a kind of Alexandria-style depository of manuscripts and artifacts from before the catastrophe. Here the story darkens as he comes to grips with the human condition, and his hopes gradually disintegrate.

OMG, I thought, as I suddenly understood that this is a powerful reimagining of the theme of Walter M. Miller Jr.’s monumental classic, A Canticle for Leibowitz, but with a profoundly sadder ending.

Dann’s secondary personality (the “Other” as he called it) annoyed me for much of both books, because I didn’t see the narrative purpose of it. He was loyal, kind, energetic, decisive, and wise in his normal self, but when despondent, he became enervated, selfish, foolish, and drug-addicted. After reflecting on it these two weeks, I have realized that he is a metaphor for humanity at large: embodying the virtues, aspirations, and achievements on the one hand, and the selfishness, degradation, and destruction on the other.

I find it depressing that this great duology is little known in the SF community, probably because it wasn’t marketed as SF. Written SF, after growing in maturity and depth in the last four decades of the 20th century, seems for the most part to have shrunken into the genre ghetto of its early years.

I’m currently about a quarter into the second volume of Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy, Adulthood Rites. So far, it is much more sedate than the first book, slower and not emotionally wrenching. That’s okay, as the exposition about the human-alien hybridization is interesting.


Thank you, @Conrad_Melville, you have found words to describe those books that I couldn’t have thought of, even though your description plucks many chords in me.

These two books by Doris Lessing (like actually every other of her works that I read) mean a lot to me, and I believe that, aside of speaking about humanity, they are clairvoyant, about our actual future (i.e. our next 100 to perhaps 20000 years, IF we at all survive what’s coming).

Have you read “Shikasta” also?
I read it a few years ago, it was hard work reading it, and I always fell into a trance-like state when I pondered over sentences and paragraphs for MUCH longer than it took me to actually read them.
Clairvoyant also, IMO (like “Memoirs of a Survivor”).

I still have to read the other four books in the series. Maybe I should begin soon-ish, life can be so short sometimes and I feel I MUST read them while I’m still here.


After I finish some unfinished books (lately bookishly I am a bit restless) I will turn to
Samuel P. Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations.


Thanks for the compliment; it’s greatly appreciated. I have decided to prioritize Lessing in my reading for the coming year. Her short story collection, The Habit of Loving, is the only other one I have read, and it was very good. I have all five of the “Canopus in Argos” books. I got three scattered volumes about 10 years ago, and acquired the others over a couple subsequent years. I didn’t want to start them until I had the whole series. However, they are dauntingly long (by my lights), so I haven’t gotten to them yet. First, however, I must finish Butler’s trilogy.

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I read Huntington’s Clash… about 3 years ago. It was an excellent, absorbing book, but I found it very difficult. I recommend reading it in small chunks. As you may recall, I had the delightful experience of meeting the author and his wife in a 25-minute cab ride to the airport, which I talked about here: What non-Go book are you reading right now? - #107 by Conrad_Melville

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That one I also found mind-blowing … such awesome distanced yet empathetic descriptions of human interaction, and of humans with their surroundings … wow!

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A Canticle for Leibowitz


Welcome to this thread. Always nice to meet another book reader. Canticle… is one of my five favorite SF novels; coincidentally, I just mentioned it here three days ago.

If you ever run across a copy of Miller’s “Best of…” volume, I recommend leaping on it. The stories in it range from outstanding to all-time classic.


Funny, when I quickly leafed through it, I got the impression that it was not that hard to absorb.

Probably these are my “famous last words”. :joy:
Haven’t started yet, but will probably somewhere next week.