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Books read, early March

Daina Ramey Berry and Kali Nicole Gross, A Black Women’s History of the United States. This is a speed run through Black women in America, mostly American political life. (It is explicitly inclusive of trans women, as it should be.) It is quite short, sometimes very simplified but always very brief. If you know someone who needs to know more about Black women in the US and is not going to take the time to read a collection of longer works, this is a good thing to hand them, but don’t mistake it for something that it isn’t.

David Brakke, The Gnostics: Myth, Ritual, and Diversity in Early Christianity. I feel like I’ve read a lot of work in the last decade that is explicitly corrective of the assumption that if history did come out a certain way, that’s the way it had to come out, and there’s a lot of that here. There’s a lot of distinguishing between what was actually the “mainstream” or “establishment” body of Christian thought, as opposed to Gnostic groups, and what was a whole mess of different Christians thinking different things, some of which coalesced into an establishment eventually. (There was a lot of mess in this era. Which is interesting.) Brakke is also being careful not to make Gnostics into a monolith they weren’t in reality. Not a long read but a sharp one.

Agatha Christie, The Murder of Roger Aykroyd. Kindle. Mostly I’ve been reading the Agatha Christie novels a friend gets to and recommends, but this one was free on Gutenberg, so I picked it up. It was very readable, not terribly much toward the bigoted end of Christie prose…and then the ending was so gimmicky and stupid. Maybe I wouldn’t have thought of the ending if I’d been born in 1878 instead of 1978? but she explicitly telegraphed it in so many places. And relied on it for the appeal of the book. So. Meh. You could do better, and she did.

Beverly Gage, G-Man: J. Edgar Hoover and the Making of the American Century. There was so much J. Edgar Hoover in that J. Edgar Hoover. This book has a tone of “can you believe this $#@*! guy?” at many turns, and that was absolutely appropriate, but even with that choice of tone: wow was it a lot to have over 700 pages of J. Edgar Hoover. Important figure, useful to know what influences and effects he had, but I was so glad to be done reading this book. I think Gage made an important point in the last section: that while Hoover certainly sometimes chose to be a villain, he wasn’t the villain–that is, we can’t let recognition of his terrible choices let other people off the hook for theirs.

David Graeber, Pirate Enlightenment, or the Real Libertalia. Malagasy pirates, traders, and their social experiments–with a strong element of one of Graeber’s favorite questions, which is: who gets credit for having agency and who is assumed to have been swept along with the “important” people, and where are those assumptions wrong? A very short book but interesting.

Barbara Hambly, One Extra Corpse. Second in her 1920s Hollywood mystery series. It’s an era Hambly clearly enjoys writing, and while it’s less compelling to me than the Benjamin January series, it’s still fun, and I’d rather that she try different things when she has the urge.

Patrick House, Nineteen Ways of Looking at Consciousness. You don’t have to have read Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei to enjoy this book, but gosh, you can, it’s so good! It’s one of my favorite books! And finding this, a book about neuroscience inspired by it, just made me so happy. Vivid, compelling writing about a topic that interests me, inspired by another piece of vivid, compelling writing about a substantially different topic that interests me. Dancing about architecture at its finest.

Talia Lakshmi Kolluri, What We Fed to the Manticore. Animal-perspective stories walk a fine line between animals being basically humans in weird costumes and animals being completely other than human. Kolluri’s animals sometimes talk, which puts her toward the first end of that spectrum rather than the second, but she does try to keep their motivations rooted in as much of their actual experience as she feels we can understand. (This is a collection of short literary stories, all of which are from an animal’s perspective.)

Kien Lam, Extinction Theory. Lots of poems inspired by personal experience, scientific theory, or a combination of the two. I appreciated this more intellectually than emotionally, but that’s nothing to sneeze at.

Rebecca Makkai, I Have Some Questions for You. Wow, wow, wow, this book. This book. Makkai is doing so much here. It’s about parasocial relationships in this millennium, sure, but it’s also about the process of reconsidering things that happened to you in your teens, things that were accepted at the time, and figuring out what you think of them now. And which of the people you know from that era are worthy of your adult trust. And it does an absolutely beautiful “but isn’t it all more complicated really? also sometimes no, sometimes really not” twist that has the intellectual honesty not to mush things together that don’t really belong together. All the content warnings here, because this is a book that is grappling hard with violence against women and with social pressures. And there are lines that just…absolutely capture being in that place and dealing with the news cycle of this decade. I feel like this is one of the books that it will be useful to hand the next generations to tell them: what was it like to be us, to be my demographic. All the little details, sure, but also the emotional arc of “wow that was super not okay and I’m going to need to deal with it, aren’t I, and what else is going to turn out not to be okay along the way.” Be in a good place if you’re going to read this, but wow is it so good.

Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom. For reasons that may or may not become clear later, I’m going to be reading a lot of political prisoner memoir in the next bit. This was an interesting volume of…not really that. Mandela is very, very much not focused on interiority here. This is a political document. However, it’s an interesting political document and one that gave me a much stronger understanding of how this person managed to come out of prison still a political leader rather than a venerable has-been.

Shion Miua, The Easy Life in Kamusari. This is a lightly fantastical Japanese novel about a young man who goes to work in forestry right out of school and learns about the forest and the people in the village near it. It is a nice book where nice things happen. The nice dog in it has adventures and comes out just fine. “There are trees and a dog and nice things happen” is something I absolutely need sometimes, especially in this decade, and now I have this one, and I’ve just seen there’s a sequel. Hooray.

Malka Older, The Mimicking of Known Successes. Discussed elsewhere.

Bianca Pitzorno, The Seamstress of Sardinia. I am worried about Italy, friends. Because this was a perfectly nice episodic novel about the work of a young seamstress around the turn of the last century–it wasn’t quite in the “nice things happen” category, closer to social realism, but okay–but when you read the blurbs it is hailed as a great novel of a woman’s liberation and a woman finding herself and that. And that kind of thing–what is considered liberating, what is considered a new sort of journey–varies with time. If the publication date on this had been 1922, absolutely I would characterize it that way. The pub date here is 2022. I checked three times. It’s a nice book, an easy read, a different view on the world than I usually get. But if this is what’s liberating in 2022 I am extremely concerned.

Gavriel Savit, Come See the Fair. Discussed elsewhere.

Steven Sharpin and Simon Schaeffer, Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Age. Are you interested in the philosophical fights about what’s useful proof and what’s useful experiment that characterized the late 17th century? I SURE AM. But if you read that and went “Uhhhh…no? why? no!” then this is definitely not the book for you. Basically you know from the title whether it is the book for you. Personally, this is like a hockey brawl for me, I am immediately more emotionally invested than I feel speaks well of my character, but there it is. Get him, Hobbes! Get him, Boyle!

Margery Sharp, The Flowering Thorn. This is a 1930s novel of a young society woman who spontaneously adopts a little boy and the ways in which she grows and changes because of it. It’s funny and fun and very much in the “nice things happen to nice people” category–even her friends who are horrible don’t all die of scarlet fever or lose their fortunes or anything like that, they just become visible as themselves. There are some cultural assumptions built into this that did not hold up well over the last nearly-century, but on the other hand a lot of it is still interesting and fun. And, for this plotline, unsentimental! Which is an interesting tonal thing in itself.

Sahm Venter, ed., The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela. I read this before I read Mandela’s autobiography, and it is much less worthwhile, in my opinion. The focus away from interiority is understandable but also particularly hard when reading him dealing with his close relatives. He also had a character trait that I hope is either cultural or personally understood by his family members, where his attempts at expressing sympathy were to rehearse at length the details he had imagined of what you were suffering. If this was not something that was either “yes, that’s how we do it here” or “yes, that’s how Uncle Nel does it,” it’s kind of horrifying to go through all the times when he’s piling woe on woe in his own mind for someone already actually having a pretty bad time. I also found the formatting choices interesting. The names he mentions are footnoted every single time. That is: you will find a footnote explaining that Winnie was his wife, Winnie Mandela, every time she appears in a letter. This book is half footnotes of that nature. I appreciate that they didn’t try to make a cultural determination of whether someone would be known based on their fame in the West, but it just got to be a lot. I think it’s very much for people who are quote-mining more than people who are reading, honestly–“I’ll open these letters and read one and see if he says anything interesting to my sermon,” is a mode I can easily see this volume supporting. But honestly most people who are not specifically interested in Mandela will get a much better view from the autobiography, or possibly from analysis written by other people.

Helen Young and Kavita Mudan Finn, Global Medievalism: An Introduction. Kindle. A brief introduction to ways in which fictionalized medievalism shows up in pop culture and ways in which this can be global rather than Faux France all the time. A different angle on a familiar topic, since this is academic study rather than fiction writers getting down to brass tacks or any other fastening device.

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Come See the Fair, by Gavriel Savit

Review copy provided by the publisher.

When orphaned Eva has a chance to escape the horrible person who has been using her to run fake seances, she jumps at the chance–especially when it leads her to the glitter of the 1893 World’s Fair and to Henry, her first real friend. The Pavilion of Magic isn’t open to everyone–but its denizen, Mr. Magister, assures Eva and Henry that she are welcome to stay as long as they like.

Of course it isn’t that simple. The scars of the Great Fire are still a deep part of Chicago, changing those who have lived there forever in ways that Eva struggles to understand. And how can something that seems magical–that seems to replicate the home she never had–be anything but a delight? Well, you’ve all read YA fantasy before. I bet you have some ideas of how.

This book was a smooth read but in some ways very structurally weird. The climax depended on Eva’s character insights into people she (and we) had never met, and the ultimate answer seems to be “don’t trust things that seem magical and bright.” I appreciated that character sacrifices were not undone by the narrative, but at the same time, “don’t look for anything magical in the world, it’s all bad” is…not actually a message I find very resonant. Savit has done a lot of research on the period but also uses magic to handwave a lot of socially inconvenient things. For me it was one of those books that’s better to be in the middle of reading than to consider when I finished.

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The Mimicking of Known Successes, by Malka Older

Review copy provided by the publisher.

It is extremely hard to combine a science fiction story and a mystery so that the emphases and the pacing and everything else comes together for both, but Older has done it here. Centuries out from an environmentally devastated Earth, settlers on (well, above–and that is significant as well as scientifically obvious) Jupiter

Mossa is an Investigator. Pleiti is a Classicist–combing through examples of old Earth literature for details about ecosystems–what plants were eaten by what animals and so on–in hopes of an eventual Earth restoration. They were close in college but haven’t seen much of each other snice–until a mysterious disappearance brings their orbits back together. Crime follows upon crime, in the very most science fictional of crimes–it all came together to my great satisfaction, the world building holding the mystery arc just so.

That said, this novella also features a love story–a “we broke up but maybe that was a mistake” love story, specifically. I am a really tough sell for that shape of love story (in my experience and observation, most of the time people break up it is for at least one quite good reason), and I didn’t find myself believing in this one. But on the other hand, I found it entirely plausible that people would try anyway, so onwards I guess.

I can easily imagine this being either a stand-alone where Older has said everything she wants to say about this setting and these characters or the kind of mystery series where each one stands reasonably alone but is doing somewhat different things. Either one would work with what we see here.

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Books read, late February

Diana Athill, Alive, Alive Oh! And Other Things That Matter and Somewhere Towards the End. These are two memoirs of old age, more or less, and I read them in reverse chronological order, which is interesting for the places where Athill has changed her mind about various aspects of her age. They’re slim volumes, fast reading, like having a conversation with a forthright elderly pal who is sometimes wrong but always interesting.

Sarah E. Baires, Cahokia and the North American Worlds. Kindle. Particularly interesting to me for its reach into the rest of the Mississippian cultural world and what we can know about that.

Agatha Christie, The Secret of Chimneys. Kindle. Most of the Agatha Christies I’ve been reading are because a friend filtered them first. This was not, this was just one that was free on Gutenberg, and it’s a very weird book, international spying not being her forte (so many ethnic stereotypes oh goodness)–but there’s sparkly banter, quite a lot of it and quite well done. So it’s one of those “hee hee hee [next line] OH AGATHA NO [next line] heeeeee” reading experiences.

Michael D. Coe, Breaking the Maya Code. Should be subtitled “How Racism Makes You Stupid”–not this author but the people who came before his cadre and had all kinds of awful racist assumptions about the Maya that, go figure, made it much harder to understand their written language. An object lesson in how letting That One Powerful Guy bully everyone makes a field much, much worse.

Robertson Davies, Fifth Business. Mid-century Canadian mild fantastika, the relationship of someone proximate to but not part of the rich and famous. Cranky and determined to be cynical and defeated, in some ways, by hopeful aspects of life and human relations in the end. This is my first Davies, and I’m looking forward to more.

Michael DeLuca, Tim Fab-Eme, Priya Chand, Octavia Cade, et al, Reckoning Issue 7. Kindle. Lovely issue. Particularly enjoyed the poem from Naila Francis and the stories from Aparna Paul, Mo Usavage, L Chan, and T.K. Rex.

Isaac Fellman, The Two Doctors Gorski. I’m not sure why Dark Academia has gotten to be such a thing, but I enjoy it a lot, and I enjoyed this particular example. Academia can destroy you, now with magic and gender politics! Yes good. More from this person, please.

V. V. Ganeshananthan, Love Marriage. This is the first novel from a local author whose upcoming novel about the Sri Lankan Civil War and its effects on a young woman studying for med school I recently enjoyed. This is also about the effects of that war, but it’s told from the perspective of a young woman in Toronto, looking back on her family and the ways their country(ies?) shaped them. Its extremely short scenes, ranging from a paragraph or two to three pages, felt like a very different kind of novel to me, and paradoxically made it easy for me to keep muttering, “just one more” in exactly the way people say they do with short scenes in James Patterson novels. That I do not. But these were beautifully written and interestingly separated. So. I think Brotherless Night is a richer and more mature work but it turns out we don’t have to choose, and hurrah for that.

Richard Harris, How Cities Matter. Kindle. A short work that does what it says on the tin: explores how cities go beyond being the sum of their parts.

Cynthia A. Kierner, Martha Jefferson Randolph, Daughter of Monticello: Her Life and Times. There’s basically no reason to read this book when Catherine Kerrison’s Jefferson’s Daughters: Three Sisters, White and Black, in a Young America exists. The Kerrison is clearer about Martha Jefferson Randolph but also is fairly clear-sighted about, you know, other people’s needs and existence. Less prone to making excuses, which it turns out is not an inevitable part of biography. So.

Kris Lane, Quito 1599: City and Colony in Transition. Lane goes into the demographics and lifestyles of various groups in Quito, which is not something I’ve gotten a lot of in this period before, so that’s pretty cool

Natalie Livingstone, The Women of Rothschild: The Untold Story of the World’s Most Famous Dynasty. I was a bit disappointed in this. I see why Livingstone was appalled that the dynastic histories of the Rothschilds tend to focus on the men, because the women were doing a whole heap of other things–but my level of interest always remained sort of at arm’s length, and I feel like the book was a bit at arm’s length too. Useful if you’re interested in the topic.

H.M. Long, Barrow of Winter. Third in a secondary world fantasy series, and I think structurally the weakest/least compelling–but still a fun read, and if you’ve enjoyed the others, you’ll definitely want this angle on it. Just probably don’t start here.

Sally Wen Mao, Oculus. Mao has a lot of poems about Anna May Wong, about the view of the world and Hollywood and everything else through that lens. Which is far enough off from the usual things–even the usual assumptions about Asian-American poetry–to keep this collection moving to its own beat and not adopting someone else’s.

Mia V. Moss, Mai Tais for the Lost. Moss is having a lot of fun here with the mashup of noir tropes and undersea science fiction environments. It’s got all the bad life choices and class examination of noir, and at least one of the femme fatale figures is an intelligent octopus.

Julie Nováková, Lucas K. Law, and Susan Forest, eds., Life Beyond Us: An Original Anthology of SF Stories and Science Essays. I found this collection to be a very mixed bag. The essays were not for me–I’m enough of a science nerd that I was going “yeah yeah we know we know” through them, and: “we” don’t, necessarily. But stories by Premee Mohamed, Bogi Takács, Peter Watts, Malka Older, and Simone Heller provided a nice variety of things I really enjoyed–and five stories is a lot of “ooh cool” for one collection.

Jane Oliver and Ann Stafford, Business As Usual. An illustrated epistolary novel from the ’30s, focused on a young woman going to work selling books in the kind of department store that still had a book section. There is a romance plot, but there’s a lot more detail about making it on your own as a woman in the city, how work looked at that time, and various other quite interesting things. Also watching the perspective shift in the letters with the plot is half the fun. I think people who enjoy illustration might find these slight but charming; I didn’t mind them, but I’m truly not the audience.

Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, The Girl from the Metropol Hotel: Growing Up in Communist Russia. Brief vivid recollections of a grim childhood.

Nisi Shawl, Speculation. I was actually a bit disappointed in how much of this seemed to be self-consciously writing an Edward Eager novel in this decade (not set in this decade), with Black kids in it–Eager was himself self-consciously copying E. Nesbit, and also I know from the experience of Everfair that I like Shawl a lot when she’s doing Shawl. It wasn’t offensive or bad, but it also didn’t seem to have engaged with the last seventy years of MG fantasy much. Ah well. Possibly it’s just that I have very low tolerance for characters who speak in rhyme. (Just one character! but still.)

Sascha Stronach, The Dawnhounds. This is some of the most vivid worldbuilding I’ve read in a long time. Mushroom cities, people! Come for the action plot, stay for the mushroom cities! Very much looking forward to the sequel.

Adrian Tchaikovsky, Elder Race. I really like the “many generations after planetary colonization, colonists interact with someone representing their past” sub-genre of science fiction, and this was a fun example. My particular favorite bits involved fun with translation.