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Books read, early January

Exclusive of manuscripts, which I don’t talk about publicly.

Octavia Cade, Chemical Letters. This was a joyful, beautiful, nerdy romp through poems and chemistry. The world needs more like this. Hurrah. Hurrah.

Thomas Goetz, The Remedy: Robert Koch, Arthur Conan Doyle, and the Quest to Cure Tuberculosis. Oh, this book. So first of all: it is gross. It does not stay with the parts of TB where someone dies looking pale and ethereal. It goes into TB and the rest of medicine in the time, in ways that are useful and disgusting. Now, me, I am the sort of person who read this while eating lunch, no problem. You judge for yourself whether you are, though, because Goetz…does not hesitate to go there. And not just with the gross, though. It is tragic: people not accepting procedures that will be lifesaving. People self-deluding that they have cures they do not. Koch, a great medical man in some ways, gradually painting himself into a corner wherein he believes himself to be unjustly persecuted just because he peddled a false TB cure and also opposed pasteurization of dairy products. (OH IS THAT ALL. POOR YOU HOW THEY PERSECUTE YOU THERE THERE.) The other thing this is, though, weirdly, is a piece of biographical criticism, of how Arthur Conan Doyle could become the man who could invent and write Sherlock Holmes in the first place. And John Watson. The influences upon him, the things that touched his life that pushed and pulled and added up to…yes, there he is: the creator of Holmes and Watson. And it’s not even a very long book, to pack in the medical background of the time, serious amounts of Franco-Prussian War politics, and the character of the two men and their families. So if you have the stomach for it, I do recommend this. But if you don’t, I don’t blame you for it.

Maria Dahvana Headley and Kat Howard, The End of the Sentence. A spooky ghost novella, but a kinder one than I feared to begin with, and worth the trouble. I’m glad that Magonia made me seek it out.

Tove Jansson, Sculptor’s Daughter: A Childhood Memoir. I should have guessed from reading the Moomin books that Jansson would have an unerring feel for what it is like to be a child, but you can’t tell in advance that someone is going to write a memoir in that frame of mind, in the frame of mind of what it was like at the time. Remembering that perspective. It was so lovely, because she was sensible in the way that children are sensible, and there were so many important details that adults leave out, things that one would want to know about 1910s-20s Finland.

Fiona MacCarthy, Anarchy and Beauty: William Morris and His Legacy, 1860-1960. Lots of pictures, less text. The jacket copy focuses on radical sexual politics, which is not much in evidence in the minimal text at all–I personally am a better source on that than this book is–and there’s a bit more on radical non-sexual politics, but only a bit. As for influence, yes, there’s some of that, but only darting into it here and there, considering how broad and deep Morris’s influence runs. I’m glad to have this book, but it’s weirdly frustrating. Not even so much shallow as spotty. And that particularly surprised me from MacCarthy, who gave us the giant exhaustive Burne-Jones biography that took up so much of my time in 2015–but this was a volume from curating an exhibit, so. Well, there’s other Morris stuff out there.

Patrick Ness, The Rest of Us Just Live Here. Fascinatingly, the fantasy plot is both completely crucial and entirely relegated to the edges of this book. What a neat needle to thread. This is a YA telling the story of the kids who aren’t in the middle of saving the world from the giant fantasy menace. They’re caught up in their own senior year relationships, and oh, does Ness remember what it’s like to be a high school senior. To be in love with your best friend, to be weirdly awkward with your other best friend for reasons you don’t fully understand, to be trying to figure out how to be good to your family and still have things the way your newly adult self needs them…with magic you can’t control or even quite see, that isn’t much to do with you, all around the edges…yes, Ness has a handle on the end of childhood very, very well.

Terry Pratchett, The Shepherd’s Crown. The last Terry Pratchett novel, and you can see where it’s not quite done, where in some spots it’s an outline–gesturing at Terry Pratchett Discovers Third Wave Feminism, sketching in Pterry’s Last Love Letter To the Old Codger He’ll Never Get To Be. And yet he gave us one more bit of Tiffany Aching, and the death of Granny Weatherwax–the loved ones of Granny Weatherwax mourning her–and you know, that was enough, I think. Not his chart-topper, his greatest masterwork. But enough. Trying for more even to the last, I hope we can all say as much.

Alter Reiss, Sunset Mantle. I must admit that I critiqued this novella in draft form. And now it’s published! Go team! This is fantasy with strong religious worldbuilding (by which I mean in-world religion, not our-world religion) and a military component, with a loving central relationship and practical work, all packed into a plotty action-filled novella. But I’ve admitted my bias.

Nisi Shawl and Bill Campbell, eds., Stories for Chip: A Tribute to Samuel R. Delany. In addition to having amazing cover art (seriously, who did that?), this covers a wide range of what Delany has meant to various people, in both fiction and nonfiction. Some people are just doing their own thing, which is influenced by him indirectly. Some are more directly trying to demonstrate his influence. For me the standout stories were Benjamin Rosenbaum’s “The First Gate of Logic” and Nalo Hopkinson and Nisi Shawl’s collaborative “Jamaica Ginger,” but I imagine that this is very much a “something for everyone” anthology, and what that something is will vary considerably.

Gordon Shepherd, Neurogastronomy: How the Brain Creates Flavor and Why It Matters. My subtitle: “Why Nonfiction Voice Matters.” This is a book whose author does not know who his audience is. Is it people who are interested in highly technical things? That would have been fine. Is it a lay audience with no technical skill? That would have been okay, too, because I could have skipped it; his voice when writing for the lay audience is really, really patronizing, and his metaphors completely unenlightening if you didn’t understand them from the technical passages. And then there are the chapters where he wanders off outside his own fields of expertise to speculate about things like Why Modern People Are Obese and goes completely off the rails, and if you want someone speculating about that on little to no expertise, why pick someone with a terrible prose voice? The parts that were Shepherd writing technically in his field were a-okay with me, but for that I think looking up his papers in journals on or some such is a far better way to go. Also this is what happens when people who are obsessed with visual processing try to do other things; they can’t even see that something that is processed spatially in the brain may not be processed visually, come on, people, this is not hard. ALSO. Let me be the first to tell you that it is possible to write about taste/smell and memory without dwelling on Proust. Do it now. Do it today.

Salla Simukka, As Black As Ebony. The third in the “Snow White” trilogy of Finnish crime YA novels. It felt tacked on, obligatory; Our Heroine…does some stuff…figures out some stuff…has some stuff done to her and triumphs in the end. All very short chapters. If you liked the first two in the series, this one is still skippable, unless you are really really set on learning what happens to Lumikki.

Leslie Valiant, Probably Approximately Correct: Nature’s Algorithms for Learning and Prospering in a Complex World. This…is an excellent example of what happens when you know your own field (mathematics/computer science) really really well, are interested in someone else’s field (biology/evolution), and…do not perhaps take as much time as you ought to understand what they are saying. About evolution and its mechanisms and why. As a result Valiant is very clear when he’s talking about algorithms, and less insightful than he hopes when he’s talking about evolution.

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