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Books read, early October

Shahzad Bashir, The Market in Poetry in the Persian World. Kindle. Short monograph placing poetry almost as a commodity to be traded and Persian as a poetry language in a set of communities which were almost always multi-lingual. For me the relationships of poets writing in Persian and how they categorized themselves with relationship to each other–sometimes aggressively so–was the most interesting part.

Patrick Bringley, All the Beauty in the World: The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Me. A fairly brief, not very deep but generally cheerful and interesting, memoir of being a guard at the Met.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning, The Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning: Volume 1, 1845-1846. Kindle. One of two that I’d had going for a bit and just finished up in the last fortnight. I found her letters to other people once they were married delightful, and watching them fall in love mostly through letters is extremely sweet. There’s also a moment where Robert Browning earns my “arright, mister, you gets to stay” reaction by telling a story about an acquaintance of his who humiliated his wife at supper and the ferocious way Browning treated him after, also by his utter relief at hearing that Ba intends to keep Barrett as part of her name once they’re married. They misunderstand each other, they get melodramatic, they’re still at this point dealing with her father who seems to be an utter piece of work. Here for it.

Susan Casey, The Underworld: Journeys to the Depths of the Ocean. Ironically not a very deep book, lots of detail about making the trips in submersibles, less detail than I wanted about the species in these ecosystems.

C.J. Cherry, The Pride of Chanur. Reread. It had been long enough that I had not remembered how much this is aunt/niece fiction, and gosh did I need that right now. I really love how the human perspective never takes center stage here, how it’s always a hani book, with Tully as a MacGuffin but not a protagonist. I love how Cherryh thinks of humans in a plurality of alien intelligences as small and fragile and raw.

Eli Clare, Exile and Pride: Disability, Queerness, and Liberation. I think I expected this to be less memoir and more theory, or maybe memoir is how Clare does theory. Anyway it was interesting. Class is in here too, not just sexuality and disability.

Jon Evans, Exadelic. I have honestly no idea how this book would strike someone who didn’t live in or adjacent to the Bay Area tech community in 2003, but for me there was a lot of the feeling of recognition, oh, these people, okay, I know them. This book is very twisty and full of several reality resets, but for me it always stayed on the side of “adequately foreshadowed and/or explained” rather than “wait what I don’t get it” to be gonzo fun rather than incoherent.

Nicola Griffith, Menewood. Sequel to Hild, and there is a lot of hard stuff in here, there is infant death and child death and battlefields are in no way glorious, though the people who treat them as glorious are portrayed accurately to their cultures. People are struggling their way through history here, doing the best they can in this firelit world, trying to make sure there’s enough to eat for the winter and a place to hide if someone treacherous comes and a way to outmaneuver the reckless. It’s so well-done and I love it so much.

Elizabeth Rush, The Quickening: Creation and Community at the Ends of the Earth. Rush was on an expedition to Antarctica at the same time as she was preparing to get pregnant, and she talked to all sorts of people involved with this scientific research community about their births, their experiences birthing, their sense of community in this setting. An interesting and unusual book.

John Sayles, Jamie MacGillivray. I am surprised to say this about a John Sayles novel, but this is a very conventional historical novel. It has fewer perspectives than his usual, mostly being tightly focused on two people from very similar places, and while it was fine and entertaining, I’m really not accustomed to being able to predict the ending of a John Sayles work in detail from 10% of the way in. Also he really did not appear to have any interest in dealing with religion with any depth or personal engagement, which…when you’re writing about people from the 18th century Highlands is sure a choice I guess? but again not the complexity I would have expected from Sayles. Ah well, not everything can be A Moment in the Sun, which might even be a good thing I guess.

Joanna Schwartz, Shielded: How the Police Became Untouchable. This lays out the legal precedents that allow police misconduct to flourish, one at a time and with clear examples. It’s a fairly short book, but a very useful one, and if you’re not sure why police are allowed to do what they’re allowed to do in the US–why it’s not just a matter of one or two bad cops but a system that makes things difficult for the good ones to make any kind of precedent that their goodness is structural–this is going to explain why, with all the receipts.

D.L. Soria, Thief Liar Lady. A Cinderella story wherein Cinderella is not a dewy innocent but in fact a girl on a mission. More than one, in fact, and navigating the world after the ball is the story here. A good enough time that I’m looking into Soria’s previous work.

Peter Stark, Gallop Toward the Sun: Tecumseh and William Henry Harrison’s Struggle for the Destiny of a Nation. Peter Stark seems to be frustrated that some people think of William Henry Harrison as a trivia question answer (“shortest presidency”!) instead of as a crucial part of the machine of genocide. Well, if you read his book you will definitely get the details on the machine of genocide and William Henry Harrison’s part in it. And also some stuff about Tecumseh and his place in his culture and family.

Valerie Valdes, Where Peace Is Lost. Hey, remember when we thought the Jedi might not suck? Valerie does, and she’s written us book with a fallen-hidden order of mystic space knights doing galaxy protecty stuff on backwater planets with eager young locals, and it hasn’t been ruined by some guy going off on his own ego that nobody else cared about. Also Valerie’s had all genders in it from the start. I’m just sayin’.

Greg van Eekhout, The Ghost Job. Four friends died in a chemistry accident, but that doesn’t mean they can’t still have fun and do heists! Middle grade romp. Featuring a Very Good Dog, not dead.

Martha Wells, System Collapse. Discussed elsewhere.

P. G. Wodehouse, Indiscretions of Archie and The Man With Two Left Feet and Other Stories, both Kindle. The latter is an unremarkable and highly mixed set of short stories, the animal stories of which feature the animal treatment mores of previous days (skip them, IME). The former stood out to me by being a standard lighthearted Wodehouse comedy in which the Great War has explicitly and on the page just happened and is allowed to be acknowledged. Our titular hero, though an idiot in fine Wodehouse Hero form, has been demobbed; he has had war experiences; when he runs into someone he met during the War, he has the sorts of feelings one might have, and while comedic events surround this, the bond itself is taken utterly seriously and respectfully. It’s the strangest thing. In some ways I had been reading Bertie Wooster as “let’s not think about all that, look, a clown,” and…here’s another clown, and his khaki is hanging in the open wardrobe. Very strange.

Lisa Yaszek, The Future Is Female! This is the other thing that I’d been reading for quite some time and only just finished up this fortnight. I’m in a book club that’s taking this anthology and its sequel a few stories at a time so we can dig into the discussion of them. It’s an anthology that’s got historical organization (going from the 1920s to the 1960s) and some of the stories in it fairly strongly appear to have been chosen for historical documentation purpose (why else is this appalling Marion Zimmer Bradley story here). There are both rarities and warhorses, solid thematic groupings and througlines, and you could do a lot worse for a book club, although I will add the caveat that you will want it to be a book group with good known moderators if so, because some of the subject matter requires basically all the content warnings.

Ovidia Yu, The Yellow Rambutan Tree Mystery. The latest in this series of historical mysteries set in Yu’s native Singapore, and I continue to appreciate her willingness to go through a notably interesting period of Singapore’s history at an astonishing clip. The series started before the Second World War, and this volume is about the war’s aftermath. Were she interested in doing “the same, but more of it” she could have lingered at any moment, but instead she wants to do different things as the setting and characters develop, and this is just what I want in a mystery series and makes me happy. Don’t start here, there’s a lot of character backstory you won’t fully appreciate even though there’s also, of course, an episodic mystery to be solved.

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System Collapse, by Martha Wells

Review copy provided by the publisher.

There’s a lot SecUnit doesn’t want to talk about.

Unfortunately repressing trauma has a time limit even when you’re a SecUnit, a.k.a. Murderbot. And when you’re in the middle of trying to find and deal with a lost outpost of humans who are vulnerable to corporate manipulation may be the worst possible time to pretend that nothing is wrong, just when you most need to integrate your human and machine sides. “Need” and “want” are definitely, definitely not the same thing here.

This is the latest installation in its series, and I wouldn’t recommend starting here; Murderbot’s personality and relationships and backstory are all well-established from other parts of the series, and the momentum you have from those will not be the same if you try to start from scratch with this late-series entry. If you already know Murderbot well, though, watching its development to this point is very satisfying. This is the good time I was looking for.

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Rosebuds, I’m pretty sure I told you to gather ’em

New essay today in Uncanny! Failing the Marshmallow Test: On Not Saving Books for Later. I know that some amount of book hoarding is inevitable because nobody, not even me, reads instantaneously. But this is about deliberately putting off something you know you want to read for “later”–and why I think it’s maybe better not to.

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Books read, late September

Jennifer Ackerman, What an Owl Knows: The New Science of the World’s Most Enigmatic Birds. Oh this was lovely, lots of interesting facts about owls. If you, like me, have moments when natural history is just the most soothing thing you can possibly read, do I have good news for you, there is this book that will tell you several more things about owls. Also it has lots of picutres of different owls. It’s just owls all the way down, here, people.

Victoria Goddard, At the Feet of the Sun. Sometimes when there’s a very long book I think about whether it could have been done at shorter length and the author was just enjoying the longer length. This book meanders and meanders, but I actually don’t think it could have been done shorter, despite the repetition of character arc, despite the set pieces that could be cut, etc., because the meander is the point. Goddard was not trying to write a bijoux little thing that somehow ran away, this was meant to be a long journey, the entire form of the book is a long journey, that’s the book it is. Now, did I like the new fire of the sun better when I thought it was a metaphor, yes, but that’s me. This is the literal story of it, things keep popping up being not metaphors after all, and almost every time I sighed and went “oh well,” because I actually do like metaphors. But it’s clearly done deliberately and oughtn’t to be changed just because of my fondness for metaphor.

Marie Howe, What the Living Do. This series of poems is not only about the loss of her brother, but it is centered around that loss. I found them to be spare, moving, and also have the kind of life associations that grief brings, where you remember random things from your history with the person, distilled in poetic form. It is a good addition to my grief poetry library. (Some of us like companionship in grief. I do.)

Jin Xu, Empire of Silver: A New Monetary History of China. I found this book interesting but frustrating. It was a history of monetary policy rather than money, in a lot of ways. It overexplained some things and then didn’t go into a lot of areas that would have been useful for the whole picture (basically there were no ethnic minorities in China who were acknowledged to have an effect on money…which is a pretty big omission given the effect on the silver supply of the Miao and other people in the hill regions…). It also jumped around in some ways, and in general was less coherently organized than I hoped. I liked having the different perspective than I usually can find on world history, and even on Chinese history, I just…probably expected too much here.

Juhani Karila, Fishing for the Little Pike. Northern Finnish Rural Weird, small-scale mythologies with large effects on the lives of individuals. Lots of small town social dynamics, including with magical creatures. I loved this, and I hope we get more of Karila’s work translated.

L.R. Lam and Elizabeth May, Seven Mercies. Second in a duology, definitely read the first one first, lots of shooty shoot space opera, mostly women characters, many of them prickly and damaged and doing the best they can in a cold hard galaxy with their friends at their back.

Suzannah Lipscomb, The Voices of NĂ®mes: Women, Sex, and Marriage in Reformation Languedoc. Late 16th/early 17th century consistory records give a lot of testimony from women who didn’t have opportunity to testify on their own behalves in as many contexts before, and Lipscomb has gone through that testimony to find out what we can say about the veryday lives of these lower an dmiddle class women. Their insults and reasons for getting into fights are particularly interesting. This is why we read history. Not all of why. But definitely why.

Erin Noteboom, A Knife So Sharp Its Edge Cannot Be Seen. And these poems are sharp too, very sharp about science and its rewards and costs, so lovely, dark sometimes in ways that I love without being–quite exactly?–in the category of grief poetry? but also not entirely not, because Noteboom is willing to look where we sometimes want to look away.

Shelley Parker-Chan, He Who Drowned the World. Another that’s second in a duology, another where you definitely should read the first one first. Almost every content warning in the world here, lots of violence including sexual violence, lots of horrible decision-making but Parker-Chan knows it’s horrible and doesn’t endorse it. I was a little surprised by how explicitly the ending metaphysically endorsed the Ming dynasty, that was…very clear. But it was a really interesting read and I’m glad to have it.

C.L. Polk, Soulstar. Reread. I think this is my favorite of the Kingston Trilogy, definitely worth sticking around for the ending, where there’s consequence piled on consequence but not in a zero-gravity-throwing-lightning-bolt way, in a doing politics that sometimes hurt people we care about accidentally and we have to deal with the fallout way. Everything ramifies in more than one direction, and we just have to keep doing the hard work. Yay. Yay.

Kay Ryan, Synthesizing Gravity. I found these essays so compellingly written, I very much wanted to go back to reading them at all times when I wasn’t reading them, and also in many cases Ryan is either laughably wrong or, more commonly, has decided that a valid personal opinion ought to be applied universally to the writing or reading of poetry. At one point she asks why she couldn’t love Auden, and I do love Auden, and I do not love Kay Ryan, and I stared bemused at the page, because it was very much a–yes, okay, we will just be very different, that’s just how it is. I ended up having her voice in my head as one of the characters frequently played by Joan Cusack at the turn of the millennium, slightly over-enunciating and over-the-top and frequently wrong but very interesting on the way to doing it. (Just don’t go to the AWP if you don’t like conferences, Kay. It doesn’t make other people troglodytes to gather together and discuss the sonnet form. Get on over it. Lordy.)

William Shakespeare, Richard III. Reread, Kindle. I am doing a project, and I wanted to make sure there weren’t any more small touchstones I wanted in it, which there were. Gosh everything is right on its sleeve in this play. DID EVERYBODY CATCH THAT THE CURRENT DYNASTY IS THE CORRECT ONE AND IS IN ITS PLACE RIGHFULLY OKAY GOOD.

Margery Sharp, The [slur redacted] in the Parlor. Kindle. So to get the title out of the way first: this appears to be a pretty clear-cut instance of an early twentieth-century British person using a slur for Romany people to mean any person who fits that stereotype that they made up about Romany people. No person in this book actually is Roma, and I have no indication that Sharp thought for one second about what this kind of usage did to people of this actual ethnic heritage. (For extra fun, the titular character appears from her name to be Welsh while everyone else is very, very solidly–even aggressively–ethnically English!…Sharp is usually much better about spotting shitty things to do and not doing them than this.) So that sucks. Especially because it’s otherwise mostly an interesting novel about family dynamics, about gender dynamics in farm life in the mid-late 19th century, about attempts at undermining or weaponizing decency and how those can fail. Sharp has a good eye for children who are not miniature adults but do have internal lives of their own, one of whom is the narrator here…but you can have that with The Eye of Love and not have to wince every time someone asks you what you’re reading. I have become a Sharp completist somewhere along the way. If you have not, by all means skip this one.

P. G. Wodehouse, Something New. Kindle. This was fluff, and it was fun fluff, it was the good kind of Wodehouse. You’ll mostly read me saying that here because if I start reading and it’s the bad kind of Wodehouse, I stop. Sometimes things are stressful and people disguising themselves as servants and having hijinks in country houses is about what I can deal with, and there was this for one of those days.