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Books read, early June

Daniel Abraham, The Tyrant’s Law. I am about as big a fan of the middle book as you might hope to find, and golly, this was almost too much middle even for me. It is very, very much a chunk off the next bit, and I can see that it’s going somewhere, but it was not in any great hurry to get there. Also, for the usual “too much boyfriend, not enough roller derby,” read, “too many spiders, not enough banking.” Still intend to be going on with the series, but I persist in hoping for more banking even though I know there probably won’t be that much more.

Louisa May Alcott, The Mysterious Key and What It Opened. Kindle. I had intended to read one of Alcott’s “adult” things at some point and downloaded some to my Kindle towards that end. This was a pretty cliched Gothic with a happy ending completely out of left field. If you are not an Alcott completist or happy with any Gothic no matter how badly executed, I would leave this one be.

R. J. Anderson, Quicksilver. Sequel to Ultraviolet. Even better due to not being set in a mental hospital. Seriously, very nearly everything about this book is a spoiler for the previous one, even though it stands alone pretty well. It would be trivially easy to use the first word of the first sentence you wanted to utter about this book and have it be a spoiler, and they’re not that old/widely read. So: non-dystopian YA SF, variety of interesting characters and relationships. (Including elderly Korean Presbys! Yay!) Recommended, but start with the first one if you think you might want to read the first one at all.

Carole Angier, The Double Bond: Primo Levi: A Biography. Grandpa’s. This was an incredibly hard book to read because of its subject matter (for those of you who don’t know Primo Levi’s work, he was a writer and chemist who survived Auschwitz and killed himself some years later). In some ways it was even harder but also more special because it’s the only book I have found so far in my grandpa’s collection in which he marked page numbers on the jacket flap. Having read those pages, I could only conclude that they were passages Grandpa found particularly moving. He would call me to share “interesting” or “funny” passages–I am still running into those, bit by bit, as I read–but not moving. That was not a type of communication about his inner life that my old Norsky Marine grandpa was much given to. So having that window was especially wonderful, and also very very difficult. I cried a couple of times. This is an exhaustive biography, and I think it will be mostly of interest to fans of Levi’s and people with special interest in Italian Jewry and its intersection with the Holocaust. Don’t get me wrong, it’s really quite well done. It’s just that it is a gigantic, legitimately depressing book, and people often want a reason to pick up one of those.

R. J. Astruc, Signs Over the Pacific and Other Stories. Discussed elsewhere. Kindle.

Lois McMaster Bujold, Sidelines: Talks and Essays. Kindle. Interesting to see how Lois’s thoughts on her work and the world have evolved, and how some things are quite constant. Fun background stuff here. Somewhat repetitive towards the end, but she warns you early on about that, so I think it’s fair play.

Junot Diaz, Drown. Short stories in the slice of life vein, very well-written, and the life they are slicing is that of a young Dominican/Dominican-American man, so it wasn’t “ho hum, yes, how like unto everything else this is” for me, the way some kinds of slice of life can be. Also I generally could see why stories began and ended where they did, which is one of the failure modes of slice of life for me. I enjoyed Oscar Wao more (more nerds and more arc), but this was worth my time.

Jane Fletcher Geniesse, Passionate Nomad: The Life of Freya Stark. Biography of a woman who traveled extensively in the Middle East in the early and middle parts of the 20th century and wrote about her travels. Interesting person, interesting bio. Goes in a nice set with Gertrude Bell stuff. Was probably the worst biography I read this fortnight without being at all bad.

Merrie Haskell, Handbook for Dragon Slayers. Discussed elsewhere.

T.H. Huxley, William Harvey and the Circulation of the Blood. Kindle. I just keep nibbling at Huxley’s speeches so I can do his voice for a future project. They are generally what they say on the tin–I’m just soaking up word choice here.

Hilary Mantel, Bring Up the Bodies. Very immersive style, very funny, lots of Boleyns and Seymours and Cromwells. These books are so discussed at the moment that I feel a bit superfluous, but I think she does a very good job of incluing the things that want inclued for people who don’t have a course in Tudor and Stuart England under their belts.

Val McDermid, A Darker Domain. I liked this entire book except the last half-page, and I see why she did it that way, it just…meh. But the rest of it was well worth it. This one is a mystery about the disappearance of a husband/father/union man during a miners’ strike, and like the other two McDermids I’ve enjoyed and recommended, it’s a mystery along two timelines, with very vivid setting, characterization, and eye to social detail.

Marla R. Miller, Betsy Ross and the Making of America. This book was probably the big discovery of the fortnight. I’m going around raving about it to everyone. I expected very little of it. It was one of those things that made my library list on the “huh, might as well” principle. And wow. Wow. So very many interesting things about colonial and federalist America that tie in so very well with this one historical figure. Early American Quakers and their foibles and schisms! The upholstering and furniture trade! Craftswomen of the period and their working lives! The treatment and consideration of the mentally ill in this period! So! Much! Stuff! Such cool stuff. Highly recommended for fabulists who are trying to look outside the kings-and-generals model, among other things. Okay, just a taste. Both of Betsy’s parents were living when her apprenticeship papers got signed. Guess who made the arrangements? Not her dad. Not her mom. Her grandma. I ended up just loving this book.

Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, The Man on the Balcony. Depressing Swedish crime novel, check.

Jenny Uglow, A Gambling Man: Charles II’s Restoration Game. I think perhaps I know too many academics. This was a quite good book on the Restoration, and I will look for more of Uglow’s work. I do recommend it to interested parties. But the central metaphor of the title…seemed tacked on at the last minute to me. It felt almost as though she wrote the book and then tried to figure out a way to make it more cohesive; or else as though she did not have the time to develop it as she had hoped. If one of my academic friends had sent me this manuscript, I would have talked to them about bringing out the central metaphor–or dropping it, because it was a fine and interesting book without it.

Marie Louise Elisabeth Vigée Lebrun, Memoirs. Kindle. Several times reading this, I said, “Oh, honey,” out loud. Because the memoirist…does not seem to have gotten a great many visits from the self-awareness fairy. (It did not call upon Versailles or the tsar’s court all that often, so this is probably not surprising.) She was a painter from the mid-late 18th century well into the 19th century but never seems to have grasped what exactly the peasants were so ill-bred as to be annoyed about. Valuable perspective on several things, but valuable and wise are not at all the same thing here.

Mark Wolverton, A Life in Twilight: The Final Years of J. Robert Oppenheimer. Kindle. When you’re writing biographical material about someone who has already had a pretty definitive biography, specialization is your friend, and that’s very much the case here. Wolverton is not pretending that Bird and Sherwin didn’t write their bio, he’s building on it and elaborating on a part of Oppenheimer’s life that was fairly glossed over in their take. Nicely done. Of course, I have most of my ideas about Oppenheimer from personal conversations with one of the people Wolverton appears to have also consulted for this book, so it’s not entirely a surprise that I think so. Still, knowing who to listen to is a good trait in a biographer, or in fact in any historian. This should not be the first thing you read about J. Robert Oppenheimer, but if you have any interest in the topic it should definitely be on the list.

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