Books read, early February

James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time. I had not read this fairly famous set of essays, and now I have. It was horrifying and instructive, as of course you would expect it to be. I think that in some ways the fact that it is a few generations ago and it is his cri de coeur about his experience of racism, direct and unfiltered, makes it not my first recommendation of Baldwin or of this kind of essay. I feel like his fiction and the contemporary equivalent of these essays are the things I’d hand to people if they’re going to read only one thing by him or only one of this type of essay, because the historical nature of it makes it easier for people to take the message as an historical message rather than one with contemporary relevance, and I feel like that’s less true of his plays/novels. But it’s still very much worth reading as long as you’re going to think carefully about it.

Bob Cary, Born to Pull: The Glory of Sled Dogs. I read very little middle grade nonfiction, but this was recommended for all ages of people who are interested in sled dogs. Not complicated but beautifully done.

Paul Cornell, A Long Day in Lychford. This is the third novella in its series, and in a lot of ways it’s a series of novellas that’s more of a serialization of a longer piece of fiction, so there are parts of the relationships, characterization, and setting that will be hard to pick up at this point. It doesn’t really stand alone. What it does do well: take on Brexit head on with a fantasy conceit. Oh my goodness, it had been a minute since I read the previous one in the series, and I had not braced myself for how much Cornell was just going to square up and do that. Wow. Wow.

Fernando Flores, Tears of the Truffle-Pig. This was a little bit influenced by SF about genetic engineering of animal species and a lot influenced by Latinx fabulism, and it’s US/Mexico border SF/F that isn’t entirely like anything else.

Lisa Goldstein, Travellers in Magic. Reread. Kindle. I had read these before and didn’t remember much about them, and I’m afraid I didn’t find them very memorable this time around either. Neither were they bad or offensive, they were generally pretty readable, just not her best work, in my opinion.

Geoffrey Hindley, A Brief History of the Anglo-Saxons. Actually more a history of the Anglo-Saxon (/early English) kings, but that’s fine, that’s useful in its own way as long as you’re clear on what you’re doing and willing to look further for the rest of things, which I am.

Nalo Hopkinson, Dominike Stanton, and John Rauch, House of Whispers Volume One: The Power Divided. This is in the Sandman universe, but with Caribbean gods and loa and a mostly new set of characters from this author. It is the kind of graphic novel collection that is not at all required to be a complete story arc, so there will be more of this story to come.

Tove Jansson, The Woman Who Borrowed Memories. These stories were amazing. The first one was so good that I had to set the book down and make noises about it. The characterization is just incredibly spot-on beautifully done, and I love it, I love this collection so much, I am so happy with it, oh gosh, so good.

A.K. Larkwood, The Unspoken Name. Discussed elsewhere.

Long Litt Woon, The Way Through the Woods: On Mushrooms and Mourning. This is a memoir of a woman who lost her husband very suddenly and unexpectedly in middle age and took up mushroom hunting as part of figuring out what to do with herself in the aftermath of his passing. She was born in Malaysia but had moved to Norway as an exchange student and stayed there when she met her husband, so part of this story is how she determined that she was going to stay there even once he was gone, how she made the Norwegian forest landscape more her own. It’s not very long, and I liked it.

Maria Mitsora, On My Aunt’s Shallow Grave, White Roses Have Already Bloomed. Short stories in translation, a very slim volume, a little surrealist and a little puzzling, but fine.

Cynthia Ozick, Heir to the Glimmering World. Another in the sub-genre of “people deal with their proximity to a fictional famous author,” in this case one mostly offstage, and also there’s the eccentric family of an immigrant scholar, and also a young woman making her way in the world of the 1930s. If you like that sort of thing.

C.L. Polk, Stormsong. Even when I say that a sequel deals with consequences, usually there is at least a little glossing over of the awkward bits. But this sequel to the excellent and (!!!) award-winning Witchmark does not spare its characters the social or moral implications of what they’ve done. They have to figure out how to handle it, exactly how to handle it–there’s no “oh I’m sure there’s some way to”–nope, who gets arrested, who has to say something upsetting to which powerful person’s face, exactly how does speaking really horrible truth to really powerful power play out here. It’s amazingly done, it’s really powerful, and I recommend it highly.

Danez Smith, Homie. These poems are soft and hard and particular and beautiful and ugly and just what I needed. There is one in particular that makes me cry every time I read it, “I’m Going Back To Minnesota Where Sadness Makes Sense,” but the others that are in some way the opposite, the others that are not my own perspective whatsoever, are enlightening in their own way too. Highly recommended.

Mariko Tamaki, Lumberjanes: Ghost Cabin. This is another of the middle grade novels in the same setting/with the same characters as the Lumberjanes comics. This one sets the group on a path to encounter some of the Lumberjanes who went before, and to help them to figure out where they want to be now that they’ve…gone beyond. Friendship to the max, even beyond the grave. So much fun.

Thant Myint-U, The Hidden History of Burma: Race, Capitalism, and the Crisis of Democracy in the 21st Century. It is very strange to read a history book that happened not only during my lifetime, not only during my adult lifetime, but mostly during the most recent part of my adult lifetime. It’s extremely useful, because the stuff that Thant is talking about here was drastically underreported in the news media I was reading. If you don’t know what the situation is in Burma in any great detail, this is a good place to go.

Jesmyn Ward, ed., The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race. As should be clear from the title, this is an essay collection inspired by James Baldwin’s famous essays, above. Ward asked a bunch of people to write on a very broad interpretation of this topic, and most of what she got is really interesting, some of it even brilliant. There are two essays that relate to what I would broadly describe as the historical Black experience in New England that were just mind-blowing. One essay for some reason needed to footnote its cis-essentialist viewpoint for reasons I still don’t understand, and I want to flag that, because otherwise this is great and what is that footnote even doing, and I wouldn’t want someone to come upon it unprepared and think I thought that part was great too. But there is so much else worth reading in this collection.

Jane Yolen, Things to Say to a Dead Man: Poems at the End of a Marriage and After. This is harrowing and well done and I cried in several spots. If you are the sort of person who grieves communally through literature, this may well be for you; if you know such a person, this may well be for them. If you are the sort of person who does not want your grief highlighted by that kind of commonality, steer well clear of this book.

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