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Books read, early October

Robin Blackburn, The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery, 1776-1848. This was interesting but not very satisfying. While it makes some gestures in the direction of being about an entire hemisphere, it really focused on broad movements of Anglophones–neither the specific stories of individual situations nor the rest of hemisphere as a whole in nearly as much detail as I would have liked. It’s kind of one of those in-between books that tries to do a whole lot and ends up not doing as much as would have been useful if it had focused. I particularly wanted more about the enslaved peoples’ thoughts and lives as best we can know them at this point. It’s probably a valuable addition if you’re building a reading list about the history of slavery and freedom, but it should definitely not be a main source by itself, or even with its preceding volume. Also, what is lacking between the establishment and the overthrow is the experience–which varied considerably over the Western Hemisphere, and I think that a study that went into those experiential differences would be fascinating. This is not that book.

Berit I. Brown, ed., Nordic Experiences: Exploration of Scandinavian Cultures. A series of essays by various authors about various Nordic figures–Grieg, Strindberg, etc. Having recently been to an exhibition of 19th century Swedish outsiders in painting, the insider nature of the choices was particularly glaring (overwhelmingly male, no Saami figures), but taken individually they were reasonably interesting scholarly essays. This is another “add it to your shelf if you have a shelf but don’t read it as the only thing” book.

A.S. Byatt, Passions of the Mind. Critical essays, where before I have only read her fiction. Mostly quite interesting, and they motivated me a great deal more than the Brown collection above did to add various authors to my collection, or bump them up the priority queue. Not anything like as engrossing as, say, The Children’s Book or The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye, but I didn’t need it to be.

Mat Johnson, Pym. What a weird book. What a weird, weird book. This is about Edgar Allan Poe and race in modern America. It follows the shape of The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, including the abrupt and unsatisfying ending. It tells you that it’s going to do that, it foreshadows the crap out of the abrupt and unsatisfying ending. And there are funny satirical bits, and quite a bit of it takes place in Antarctica, and…yeah. This book. This is the kind of book that totally qualifies as speculative fiction and yet doesn’t seem to come up in discussion very much in the genre community, so: this is a thing, read this thing.

Astrid Lindgren, The Brothers Lionheart. Reread. This was a childhood favorite. It is stark and spare and morbid and beautiful and Swedish. It is also a prime example of how the reader’s 50% is more like 80% in the case of children’s books. There’s a lot you have to fill in for yourself, not plot-wise but in terms of what the small descriptions and character interactions mean. Which is not a bad thing, just a thing.

John Lindow, Trolls: An Unnatural History. A brief survey of how trolls are portrayed in sagas, in folk tales, in literature. Interesting but not life-changing.

Microsoft (?), Future Visions: Original Science Fiction Inspired by Microsoft. Kindle. This was a free offering, and I do hate to look a gift horse in the mouth. There are a lot of authors I like in here. But Elizabeth Bear’s story was the only one I really liked, and that meant that I was gravely disappointed because there were a lot of other stories I expected to like. Conclusion: Microsoft is maybe not the best source of cutting-edge science-inspired science fiction? or maybe just doing a one-off like this isn’t? I don’t know.

Robert Moor, On Trails: An Exploration. It really is what it says on the tin. Goes into different trail-formation patterns and techniques in the animal kingdom, some discussion of humans–especially North Americans–and their different concepts of trails (as opposed to roads). Appalachian Trail is present but not obnoxious. Quite an interesting meander through the concept.

Karina Sumner-Smith, Towers Fall. The end of a trilogy. Threads wrapped up, good triumphant and evil downcast, more or less. The ending is healthy and organic in ways that it was not obvious that it would have to be. I was also delighted by the imagery of the very ending, and I’d be interested to see if it was also delightful to people who don’t know Karina personally.

Andrew Wilson, Belarus: The Last European Dictatorship. The subtitle of this book put me off for some time. On the one hand it’s got “DICTATORSHIP” right there in the title, which does not promise a sprightly read, and on the other hand, “the last,” really? that seems optimistic. But the title aside, this was really lovely. It talked about various proto-Belarus ancestral states. And crucially, it skipped over the sentences that would have started, “Like the rest of the tsar’s territory at this time, Belarus…” or, “As in other Soviet Republics, Belarus….” So it could spend its time on things that were unique to Belarus, confident that if you care, you can get the other information elsewhere. And in fact I can! and more time to medieval sorcerer-kings was all for the best for me. Also, I hit a moment where I was thinking, “He really hasn’t talked much about the Jewish population, this was a really important region for Judaism,” when bam, entire section on Jewish Belarus. I call that thoughtful. Now I’m looking forward to the history of Ukraine I have on my pile by the same author.

Ben H. Winters, The Last Policeman. This is another book that is totally speculative fiction and yet I haven’t seen it discussed by many people in the community. It’s a mystery novel where the policeman in the title is investigating deaths in the face of an impending apocalyptic asteroid strike. People are coping via hedonism, despair, and various other extremes, and then there’s our hero, making sure that people are not neglected and the law is upheld. I’m not sure I need more in this series, but this was an interesting thing to do, created a mood quite thoroughly and yet followed through on implications.

Fiona Wood, Wildlife. This is mainstream YA, and it points out how fine the line is between a problem novel and a novel of character. It would be very easy to make this sound like a problem novel, where grief and toxic friendships are the problems in question. Instead it was a novel of character, far more broadly worth reading. I like Wood’s characters, fumbling as best they can toward treating each other decently, and I will look for her other work.

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