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Books read, early March

Renee Ahdieh, The Wrath and the Dawn. A vivid and intense 1001 Nights retelling, very distinct from E.K. Johnston’s A Thousand Nights despite both featuring a strong romance and a strong female platonic relationship. The root story is not one that snagged me for possible retelling as a love story, so I’m fascinated to watch very different people make it work, and I’ll be even more interested to see what Ahdieh does branching out into more of her own stories with the sequel.

Thornton Burgess, The Adventures of Old Man Coyote. We all have gaps in how we read the children’s classics as kids, and Burgess was one of mine–when talking to a friend about his childhood reading and Little, Big, it became clear to me that I’d read a character in the latter as a type when he was far more particular than that. Burgess is very much of a different era of children’s literature–gender issues so marked that there was only one (grandmother) female character in the entire animal village, didacticism not only marked but set aside in little poems–and yet it was a breezy little read, and I could see why decades of kids learning to read were proud of getting through the different animals’ adventures.

Seamus Heaney, The Haw Lantern. Strange combination of highly personal and highly intellectualized/meta poems in a very small volume. While I could see that what he was doing was very good, none of it touched me very particularly, in the strange way that poems either do or do not. However, it was a thing that I read over breakfast instead of articles about Donald Trump, and this is a life choice I cannot help but recommend.

Neil Kent, The Triumph of Light and Nature: Nordic Art, 1740-1940. Lots of pictures, some of them unfamiliar and interesting. I am still puzzling over Willumsen’s Jotunheim. Particularly the decapitation. I was interested in this before planning my trip to Sweden and Finland, but I made it a priority to read in case there was anything I’d want to make a point of seeing.

Hilary McKay, Binny in Secret. This is one of the good McKays, by which I mean that it made me giggle out loud in several spots and it also tackled genuinely dark and difficult topics. And yet it wasn’t one of the best McKays, by which I mean that I don’t think it really held together in the end. The dark and difficult topics were brought up with a “lady or the tiger” sort of ending: unresolved, left to the reader, in a way that I found to be a copout, and also one of the middling-difficult topics (the relationship between the two girls) was really glossed over in a way that was far less sensitive than I usually expect of McKay. Also the characters were more remembered from Binny for Short than completely drawn in. So: I’m glad I read it, I will want my own copy (this was the library’s), but it’s not going to be one of my top recommendations. More on a par with Indigo’s Star than the really good ones.

Jonathan Spence, Return to Dragon Mountain: Memories of a Late Ming Man. A fascinating look at an essayist at the end of an era, his family and how he portrayed them. Spence is really good at this kind of microhistory, the sort of stuff for China that Steven Ozment does for Germany. Always a pleasure.

Brian Staveley, The Last Mortal Bond. Discussed elsewhere.

Susan Stinson, Spider in a Tree. Oh, I loved this. Loved. It’s a novel about Jonathan Edwards–you know, the preacher of “sinners in the hands of an angry God,” that Jonathan Edwards–and his household and neighbors and their world. And Stinson really digs into the fundamental weirdness of colonial Massachusetts, religiously and interpersonally, and yet sticks with their fundamental humanity, in ways that are so compelling. It’s rare and wonderful to get a great historical novel that isn’t focused on either war or a single arc of romance, that gets all the gritty details of householding right and puts them in the context of different characters’ concerns with their larger universes. Preaching from insects, different slaves’ perspective on joining their owners’ church, nephews finding their way in the world their uncle shapes with his preaching but does not control…oh, so many good bits.

Wislawa Szymborska, View With a Grain of Sand. Reread. Perhaps it’s an aspect of reading in translation, but while nothing shot lightning through me, nothing made me go leaping through the house looking for my phone or my computer to write to someone about a particular line, a particular poem, the entire experience of this was satisfying, like being in very good and thoughtful hands, like a satisfying conversation.

Michael Taussig, The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America. Fascinating study of how people interact with the ideas of magic and evil and money when the money/wage component is comparatively new to how they deal with work. Lots of really interesting anecdote, lots of really dense and chewy analysis. Good fodder for fantasy writers, probably worthwhile for others as well.

Lavie Tidhar, ed., The Apex Book of World SF Volume 3. Like Volume 2, this was an extremely varied collection in tone, subject, author origin, and more; I expect that Tidhar had to work quite hard to get such a variety of stories. The ones that stood out for me in the most positive ways were Xia Jia’s “A Hundred Ghosts Parade Tonight,” Fadzlishah Johanabas’s “Act of Faith,” and Amal El-Mohtar’s “To Follow the Waves.”

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