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Artificial Life After Frankenstein, by Eileen Hunt Botting

Review copy provided by the publisher.

What a weird lot of conceptual holes this work of science fiction criticism has in it. There are whole large sections on which Botting is extremely sound–the rights of the child, for example, and its evolution in science fiction from Shelley onward. Good stuff. Unfortunately, that appears to be her previous book, and in this one she has extended her arguments about political science fiction in some very weird ways.

Whenever I am presented with a taxonomy, I want to look for its underlying assumptions to find the places where it may be missing things. In this case they leapt out at me without much looking. Botting divides political SF since Shelley into Apocalyptic, Hacker, and Loveless, based on its primary anxieties. Problem: not all political SF is primarily anxious. Problem: in order to make political SF fit those categories, you have to warp interpretations of vast swaths of it.

Since Botting seems to have swallowed whole cloth the history of SF that was in vogue 20+ years ago when I was in college, many of the earlier works that would have complicated this taxonomy are absent. I don’t know why the recent ones are except that they don’t support her argument. She doesn’t appear to have ever encountered Lois McMaster Bujold’s speech/essay on science fiction as the fantasy of political agency, which is odd because Bujold is not exactly a minor figure in the field she purports to be examining nor is her work even remotely irrelevant to the continuity of Shelley’s influence in political SF. Missed opportunities.

The text was also filled with small errors and ideas that, if they were not in error, certainly were not supported. Particularly egregious was the label of Shelley as genderfluid in the same passage as Botting directly quoted Shelley as identifying, if anything, more completely with womanhood than Shelley’s estimation of the women around her. Genderfluid does not mean the same thing as bisexual/pansexual, and I would expect either a critic in 2020 or at the very least their editor to understand that.

I wanted this book to be so much more thoughtful and thorough than it was.

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Laughing to Keep From Dying: African American Satire in the Twenty-First Century, by Danielle Fuentes Morgan

Review copy provided by the publisher.

This is an academic work, with all the analysis that implies; it is not itself a work of humor. That analysis, however, is well worth the price of admission for anyone who cares about satire, about 21st century African-American culture, and I think in fact for American culture in general. Morgan is magisterially far-reaching when it comes to satirical lenses of the 21st century. She has no apparent genre bias but sees the potential for satire in any and all genres.

She also sees its potentials for failure. The section on failed attempts at satire and why they missed their mark is fascinating, and by itself it would have been enough to make the whole book worthwhile. While this is academic analysis, she is entirely ready to include “this wasn’t particularly funny, no one was laughing, and for good reason” in failure modes of satire. She’s not doing a comedy turn herself, but she never loses sight of what she’s actually analyzing–and I felt inspired at several places to look for the more successful attempts she describes, to experience or re-experience them.

Morgan gives the reader a solid grounding in pre-21st century works in this genre, quickly and concisely but in a way that made me miss Richard Pryor, which seems like exactly what ought to happen with a work like this. I enjoyed this book a lot, and it also made me enjoy some things more deeply–not required of criticism, but excellent when it can happen.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.