The Great Kosher Meat War of 1902: Immigrant Housewives and the Riots That Shook New York City, by Scott D. Seligman

Review copy provided by the publisher.

One of the great things about my adult life is that there are so many more histories published that are not Great Man or even Great Event histories. This is one of them. Even with my immigration interest–I literally wrote a kids’ book about Jewish immigrants to the US–and my interest in labor relations, I had never come upon anything about the Kosher Meat War of 1902.

This is compelling stuff. There are people who are struggling to feed their families in an unfamiliar land, there are new technologies causing upheaval on a commodity landscape, there are communities attempting to recreate their favorite parts of community in their previous home only to find that not everyone shares their preferences.

And there are middle-aged ladies breaking glass and pouring kerosene on beef.

The leaders of the Kosher Meat War took a lot of lessons from the labor movement and also contributed some interesting experience to it, but for the most part they were not labor leaders or even labor leaders in training. They were ordinary people who had been pushed too far. What people do in a situation like that is fascinating, and so is this book.

Books read, early November

Barbara Bourland, Fake Like Me. A young artist’s studio burns, and the paintings that survived the fire are worth far more. Problem: they didn’t survive the fire. So she has a few months to completely remake a giant show, and also to delve into her assumptions about life and art and other artists. There were some dubious rich people assumptions–namely that a working class artist would get more attention than a rich one, pull the other one, Bourland–but it was still an interesting read and different from everything else.

Allie Brosh, Solutions and Other Problems. By the author of Hyperbole and a Half. This had some funny bits and some sad bits and some frankly deeply alarming bits; the times when Brosh is made unhappy by the world are sad but her own philosophy seems to be making her less happy also, and that’s more alarming to watch.

Emily Carroll, Through the Woods. This is another graphic novel, this one of creepy fairy tale-adjacent stories of monsters and dark places.

Roshani Chokshi, The Silvered Serpents. Second in its series, and I would start with The Gilded Wolves, because this has a lot of implication and ramification that follows from that. I raced through it and had a great time with it.

Zoraida Cordova, Wayward Witch. Another sequel, this one the third in its series. I sometimes like the shape of series where the setting and events continue to ramify but the narrative focuses on a different character each time, and this is one of those. I like this series a lot and recommend it.

Robert Darnton, Censors at Work: How States Shaped Literature. Three different case studies of censorship in Western history. While I would also like a farther-reaching study of this topic, some of the ways in which censorship varies a lot with its environment and assumptions were really interesting–and the fact that Darnton got to interview actual East German censors about their work was just great.

Bathsheba Demuth, Floating Coast: An Environmental History of the Bering Strait. Lots of large marine mammals, lots of cultural shift here. I particularly liked having this angle on world history, from a region that had a very different concept of what world there was and how to handle it than many of the dominant regions. Content warning, as you would expect, for mass slaughters.

Joy Harjo, ed., When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through: A Norton Anthology of Native Nations Poetry. This had some really interesting poems in it, but it’s one of those anthologies that skews toward picking poems that are About This Ethnic Experience, which can give a distorted view of what marginalized groups choose to write about or are allowed to write about. So this is another of the “don’t let this be the only thing you read on this topic” category. It’s organized geographically and then temporally within each geographic section, which I enjoyed.

S.L. Huang, Burning Roses. Fairy tale crossover novella from multiple cultures, thinking about monstrousness and relationships. Delightful if you know all the source material Huang is riffing on, but I think it would still work if you only knew some of it.

Sujata Massey, The Satapur Moonstone. Early twentieth century Indian setting for this mystery, which takes some time to really get going.

Hilary McKay, Love to Everyone. This historical makes me feel like McKay is branching out in genres, which I enjoy. It’s got a WWI setting and covers quite a lot of ground. I really like how it–like other McKay–allows the child reader and the child protagonists to see through some of the social niceties adults will claim on behalf of other adults. There’s a certain set of tropes about who dies in the Great War, what specific kind of person, that…goes back to stuff that was written at the time but still is a little frustrating. But in general I enjoyed it anyway.

L.M. Montgomery, Emily of New Moon and Emily Climbs. Rereads. I was always an Emily girl as a kid, more than an Anne girl. These two are fun. I would never be friends with Ilse in real life, but I enjoy her immensely on the page, and I enjoy Emily’s career focus and I enjoy the bits where she is dealing with her large and exasperating extended family. Things I do not enjoy: Teddy Kent; Dean Priest. I knew Dean Priest was creepy when I first read these, when I was younger than Emily. But rereading them now that I have two godchildren Emily’s age when a man in his 30s starts hitting on her…aaaaaaaagh go away and stay away, basically every dude character in these books who isn’t Cousin Jimmy. Maaaaaybe on a good day Mr. Carpenter. Maybe. (I’m a little alarmed by how much Mr. Carpenter is Adult Dude Ilse. But okay, onward.)

Amy Tintera, All These Monsters. Fun monster-fighting YA SF that takes on toxic relationship tropes and kicks their teeth in. Very much enjoyed this.

Megan Whelan Turner, Return of the Thief. I think this most recent volume in this series might be my favorite. It’s got a protag who isn’t the king of anything, and it’s thinking about disability and assumptions a lot. But for heaven’s sake don’t start here, it won’t make sense without at least some of the earlier books in the series.

W.B. Yeats, The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats. There are things I aspire to do and things I dread, and reading the collected poems of Yeats was a third category that fewer people seem to have than the previous two, which is things that I expect I will do without feeling particularly strongly about that expectation. “Yeah, that sounds like me,” rather than “ooh!” or “oh no.” Anyway, in addition to the attempts at a mythic ethnic poetry and the poems to various friends and lovers, there was an entire middle section that was substantially about being in a country wracked with plague and political upheaval while adjusting to middle-age (as a pretty bumpy road), so…yeah, poetry, punching you in the teeth between the pretty parts. This is what I wanted from it, and lo, this is what I got.

We Care

I got my author copy of If There’s Anyone Left Vol 1 today:…… Can’t wait to dive into the other stories! But let me say something about mine a minute.

There are a lot of stories about good people being ground down by heartless systems. And that’s a real thing that happens. But I feel like when that’s the only story we tell, it feels inevitable. We get nihilistic about it. “Good person destroyed by bad system, of course!” There’s also the template of good people being corrupted by the systems they’re in. That happens too.

But I wanted to tell a story that was the opposite. I don’t believe that evil is stronger than good. I believe our kindness can be effective.

This is one of those stories.

Anyway it’s pretty short, and I hope you like it. It’s called “We Care.” And I can’t wait to see what the other stories in this beautiful little volume have to say.

Present Writers: Madeleine Robins

This is the latest in a recurring series! For more about the series, please read the original post on Marta Randall, or subsequent posts on Dorothy HeydtBarbara HamblyJane YolenSuzy McKee CharnasSherwood SmithNisi ShawlPamela Dean, Gwyneth JonesCaroline StevermerPatricia C. Wrede, Lois McMaster BujoldNancy Kress, Diane DuaneCandas Jane DorseyGreer Gilman, Robin McKinley, Laurie MarksEllen Kushner, Delia Sherman,Rosemary KirsteinKaren Joy FowlerSusan CooperEllen KlagesLisa GoldsteinC.J. CherryhKate Elliott, and Molly Gloss.

I keep noticing that a lot of the authors I want to profile with this series wear a lot of hats, and that is certainly true of Madeleine Robins. (Also could probably rock a stylin’ cloche, but Marissa Picks Hats For Writers is a different blog series, let’s not get sidetracked.) Robins has published in fantasy, mystery, and romance. I can only vouch for the first two, but they’re both really good, and I would make a bet on the last one based on that.

I think one of the things I particularly like about the Sarah Tolerance mysteries that is also true of Robins’s two stand-alone fantasies is that they have a very strong sense of place. In most of her work, that place is urban in some way or another, but also she has a keen eye for characterization within its context. (Which…is the ballgame. Characterization without context is incoherent.) Her books are witty but never jokey at the expense of the story, fun without losing sight of serious life issues. In fact in some ways I think they’ll be the perfect pandemic rereads.

Let’s get on that.

Books read, late October

Madeline Ashby, ReV. Third in a series about robots and personhood. Does not pull punches with human sexuality and its darker sides. I wouldn’t recommend starting here, since there’s a lot of worldbuilding preceding it.

Rena Barron, Maya and the Rising Dark. This is an awesome fun book about a young girl in Chicago interacting with Orishas and coming into her own power. It’s just the sort of MG I love to read, and I can’t wait for more in this series.

Roshani Chokshi, Aru Shah and the Tree of Wishes. And speaking of more in the series, Aru, Mini, and their friends are back and just as fun and awesome in the third book of this lovely MG series. My younger godchild and I gossip about our favorite characters on the family Discord. It’s great, read the whole series.

Lynn Darling, Out of the Woods: A Memoir of Wayfinding. This is sort of about wayfinding, but it’s a lot about dealing with the (long-term) aftermath of loss, and also with cancer. So if you read natural history for cool details about the woods, this is very, very not that.

George Eliot, Scenes of Clerical Life. Kindle. This is three novellas, recent historical fiction when she wrote them, about people’s lives and relationships around small town churches. If you have the entirely false belief that 19th century women just wrote about love and marriage, this one has domestic violence, alcoholism, and doctrinal schism as well, come be proven wrong. She is so compassionate and clear and good.

Elisa Gabbert, The Unreality of Memory. Essays on disaster culture. I feel like timing did not serve this essayist well–some of the things she says are not at all looking prescient in the face of a pandemic–but to be fair some of them were incredibly wrong-headed before the pandemic as well. She writes nice sentences, I just have very little interest in people who are willing to repeat the utterly wrong “autistic people have no empathy” idea, among other things.

Carolyn Ives Gilman, The Ice Owl. Kindle. Alien SF politics of a young girl who has traveled a lot relativistically and is trying to figure out her relationships thereafter. Some of the gender stuff feels a little off, but possibly this is in the “we have to explore this to figure out how to do it better” camp.

Louise Glück, Averno and Faithful and Virtuous Night. Guess who got in ahead of the crowds the morning Glück won her Nobel. I described these to some friends as cerebral but not intellectual: the own internal experience of Louise Glück is examined with minute and thoughtful care, the outside world not as much a topic.

Virginia Hanlon Grohl, From Cradle to Stage: Stories from the Mothers Who Rocked and Raised Rock Stars. Yeah, this is Dave Grohl’s mom. This is Dave Grohl’s mom interviewing other musicians’ moms about their experience of parenting. It is not attempting to be hard-hitting investigative journalism, it is pleasant conversations with Ginny, and frankly it was pretty relaxing that way. (Dave Grohl’s mom calls him David. Which, when you think about it, sure, yes. Also she is still pretty protective of Kurt Cobain’s mom after all these years, which melted my heart.)

Joanne M. Harris, Honeycomb. Discussed elsewhere.

Hebi-Zou and Tsuta Suzuki, Heaven’s Design Team Volume 1. Manga about weird animal facts and evolution, with the conceit that God has outsourced their creation to a design team, with the group dynamics inherent thereto. Fun stuff, silly.

Kathleen Jamie, Sightlines. Beautiful essays on remote places. I am so glad to have so much Kathleen Jamie ahead of me to read. It’s a great comfort.

Amanda Leduc, Disfigured: On Fairy Tales, Disability, and Making Space. This was more memoir than literary analysis in some ways, but both can be valuable, just know what you’re getting if you pick it up.

Helen Macdonald, Vesper Flights. Essays about birds and nature. I couldn’t read H is for Hawk because of the paternal death theme, but this was really well-written, and not on that theme, so hurray, I could enjoy it.

Arkady Martine, A Desolation Called Peace. Discussed elsewhere.

N. Scott Momaday, The Death of Sitting Bear. Poems full of bears, Russia, Kiowa themes, history, generally interesting stuff.

Nina O’Leary, Native Enough. A collection of photo portraits and interview questions with a variety of Native college students talking about their experience of Native-ness.

Susan Palwick, The Necessary Beggar. Discussed elsewhere.

Marta Randall, The River South. Kindle. This sequel to Mapping Winter is not nearly as strong or thematically focused as its predecessor, but it’s still smoothly written and fun to read. May serve as Steerswoman methadone if that’s a thing you need.

Iona Datt Sharma, Division Bells. Kindle. Charming, sweet near-future administrative romance. Administrative? Legislative! More political romance, more.

Mary Stewart, The Ivy Tree. A thriller in the sub-genre of Brat Farrar, with a twist visible from page one and deeply stereotyped characterization.

Kate Wilhelm, The Good Children. Reread. I won’t need to read this a third time, I fear. The sentence-level writing is smooth, as I’d expect from Wilhelm, but the characterization is shallow and weird, and the plot is predictable and offensive in its handling of mental illness. Sigh.

P. G. Wodehouse, The Intrusion of Jimmy. Kindle. I’ve gotten pretty good at detecting bad Wodehouse right out of the gate. This is one of the good ones: sending up its era’s obsession with gentleman thieves, setting up a plot where everyone ends up with the right person but not without a lot of hijinx in the middle. If you like Wodehouse at all, you’ll probably like this one. There is a New York Irishman who has a lot of phoneticized dialect, but it’s survivable.

A Desolation Called Peace, by Arkady Martine

Review copy provided by the publisher. The author is a close friend of mine, to the point where I DMed her to screech, “my DUDE Swarm” in the middle of this book when my new favorite character did something particularly noteworthy.

Mahit Dzmare and Three Seagrass are back, dealing with the (NOT INCONSIDERABLE) fallout from their previous actions. Can Lsel be home again? What about all the upheaval in the reign of the new Emperor, Nineteen Adze? All of that is very much just getting started when Martine’s cool, assured prose is introducing us to an entirely new alien species. Threat or menace? We are plunged immediately into finding out–and into all the complications of finding out with the above fallout still ongoing.

Nine Hibiscus and her old friend Twenty Cicada are on the front lines of the new alien threat. (And if you’re thinking, Twenty Cicada, I thought Teixcalaanli weren’t supposed to be named after animals, 1) you are just as entranced with Teixcalaanli names as I am and 2) you are correct, this is a worldbuilding detail as well as a bit of characterization. My dude Swarm is the best.) Nine Hibiscus’s political position, as a military leader, has been immensely altered by the upheaval in the previous volume, and she has to wrangle disgruntled and politically inconvenient officers under her command as well as keeping the new aliens from pouring in and destroying Lsel Station and the Empire.

And there are modified kittens in the ductwork. Oh, and Nineteen Adze and her…extremely precocious imperial heir? They have a great deal of look-in too. Because there’s a lot going on among the ministries of War, Science, and Information, and it will take a pretty determined person to put the pieces together.

I laughed, I whimpered, I squirmed, I marveled. This is just so good. It’s so thoughtful about home and relationship and obligation and duty and communication, it’s doing all the things it’s doing on so many iterated levels, it is a beautiful book, it is in every way a delight, and you should feel free to DM me “OMG MY DUDE SWARM” when you get to various bits of this book when it comes out.


Honeycomb, by Joanne M. Harris

Review copy provided by the publisher.

This book is a maddening mix of beautiful and obnoxiously trite.

It’s a set of very short stories in fairy tale style, some of which form an arc plot and some of which do not. There’s a lot of lovely stuff with the intersection of insects and Faerie that gets in very neatly at the sense of the alien in the best Faerie fiction–they’re literally not like us if they’re a swarm of bees, okay, cool. (I am reminded of Robert Levy’s The Glittering World, which is in every way a better book.)

But the down side of fairy tale locution is that in this case Harris stretches it so that the characterizations have length but no depth, so that when the story returns to previous characters, I had no sense of “oh cool, it’s that person”–they remained shallow, mostly heartless archetypes at best, and sketches less charming than their literal illustrations at worst.

The heavy-handed parables were the worst of it. Interspersed with the whole were messages that Harris apparently just had to get across, in fairy tale language, including such gems as “don’t get obsessed with your cell phone.” Thanks, Polonius! Without you I would never have thought of such a message! As a full-time genre professional, I can tell you that you do not get bonus points for making your snotty and obvious life advice slightly princessified. At least not from me.

And then there’s the use of Hel, which is a very specific spelling with specific cultural connotation, to just mean…Hell. If you have a lord of it and it’s full of the damned, it is not Hel and what are you even doing. Why. It doesn’t make you fancy, it’s not like spelling your name Jynnyfer where the meaning doesn’t change.

So what to make of this book. Honestly I’m not sure it’s worth your time to try. The occasional beautiful image isn’t worth all the flaws. Her books are sure to be bestsellers even without your time and attention, because of who she is and the marketing campaign they’re given. I haven’t read any of the others, but maybe one of them is better. It’s probably worth at least giving that a try.

Writing About Love and Grief and Aliens

This week our furnace went out and we had to buy a new one. You can see this in the screenshot from the Zoom I had to record a podcast: I am wrapped in my giant red plaid shawl, the one my brother gave me last Christmas. Katie, my agentsib, is in Los Angeles in a sleeveless top with lacework. Welp.

Anyway, the literal house was the only thing chilly, the rest of the podcast was a very warm and friendly experience, and I hope you enjoy listening to it.

Present Writers: Molly Gloss

This is the latest in a recurring series! For more about the series, please read the original post on Marta Randall, or subsequent posts on Dorothy Heydt, Barbara Hambly, Jane Yolen, Suzy McKee Charnas, Sherwood Smith, Nisi Shawl, Pamela Dean, Gwyneth Jones, Caroline Stevermer, Patricia C. Wrede, Lois McMaster Bujold, Nancy Kress, Diane Duane, Candas Jane Dorsey, Greer Gilman, Robin McKinley, Laurie Marks, Ellen Kushner, Delia Sherman,Rosemary Kirstein, Karen Joy Fowler, Susan Cooper, Ellen Klages, Lisa Goldstein, C.J. Cherryh, and Kate Elliott.

My favorite history professor in college started the semester by telling us, “If you don’t read science fiction, you should start now, because that’s the mindset you need to cultivate for this class.” The blend of settings Molly Gloss uses in her work gives me the impression that she feels the same. She moves from science fiction to historical fiction and back again, sometimes in the same collection, with a seamless sense of the continuity of human experience–including the fundamental strangeness and dislocation of being a thinking person. Whether it’s generation ships or WWI-era rodeo riders, Gloss has a deft hand with characterization.

Her new collection, Unforeseen, is one of the most comprehensively readable collections I’ve read in years. Some of the pieces in it are quite old, others new to this collection, and it’s lovely to see new work out from her again. Her stories are so vital and living, they’re just what I need right now. Maybe you do too.

The Necessary Beggar, by Susan Palwick

Review copy provided by Tor Books.

This is the second of Tor’s new Tor Essentials line I’ve read–the first was The Dragon Waiting, so it’s in good company. I’m eager to see the rest of what they’re doing here, because these are two books I love and want to see a larger audience.

The Necessary Beggar is about a family of interdimensional refugees whose exile involves walking through a blue door into an unknown world…which happens to be Reno, NV, in the early part of the twenty-first century. Palwick does the best job I’ve ever seen at introducing characters to things that are unfamiliar to them and familiar to us, gradually building their knowledge of the culture we already know in a way that illuminates it.

She’s also done a beautiful job creating a family that comes from the same culture but has prioritized different aspects of it–no one person has to stand in for the whole, each gets to be fully individualized, and as a result the pieces of culture they cling to in their new home vary extremely. There’s not a lot of standard science fiction furniture here–after the dimensional travel, the book is mostly stuff that could happen at any time if there happened to be people with those personalities and cultural beliefs around to make it happen.

The Necessary Beggar, as its back cover tells us, is from the perspectives of a girl, a grandfather, and a ghost. I am a sucker for tales of relentless young girls and the grandpas who love them, so this is right in my wheelhouse. The ghost turns out to be pretty interesting too. But the main thing about this book is that it’s some of the most compassionate science fiction I’ve ever read. The people get to be full, flawed people and still love each other and make their way an an imperfect world with some of the most focus on kindness that I’ve ever seen in a book. This book dives into some extremely difficult issues–refugees, immigration, homelessness, alcoholism, suicide, cultural loss, depression–but it does so with such love that the potentially depressing nature of the topics is turned to hope. Highly recommended, so glad it’s available in this new edition.