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Books read, early January

Claire Eliza Bartlett, The Good Girls. Impeccably characterized YA thriller. CW for in-depth, thoughtful discussions of suicide, sexual assault, eating disorders, and more–this is a no-holds-barred journey, everything impeccably well done but may be difficult for some readers.

Kathleen Belew, Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America. Oooof, the subtitle is the Content Warning here. This is unleavened terrible, and it is somewhat specialized terrible: Belew doesn’t do a lot with the links to past and current versions of these movements, she is very focused on the era immediately following the Vietnam War up through the early 2000s. Really interesting background on that era and the stories it tells itself, but probably not a good thing if you’re only up for reading one book on this topic.

Susan Berfield, The Hour of Fate: Theodore Roosevelt, J.P. Morgan, and the Battle to Transform American Capitalism. Berfield makes a compelling case that both Roosevelt and Morgan felt that they should be the hand on the wheel of American capitalism, and that this brought them into considerable conflict. There are many moments where I feel like she wished she was writing biographies of someone else–several Progressive Era figures take her fancy–but there’s plenty out there about the two titular figures, so I didn’t really mind the sidetracks.

Tim Clarkson, Aethelflaed: Lady of the Mercians and Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age. The first of these books was a disappointment. It was focused on Aethelflaed’s time, not her person, not even to the extent that we can know about her personally; Clarkson did not seem to notice that the female half of Early England might exist or be important. It was a very standard southern-England focused history from that period, which is a fine enough thing but not at all what I was looking for. The northerly-focused volume was much better, because I didn’t expect that he would have much to say about anyone but ruling-class men, so I knew going in that I’d get that and get what I could out of it. He’s the author of several more books about this area and period that I may well read, but lordy am I glad that there are other authors who know that farmers and women exist.

Elwin Cotman, Dance on Saturday. What an amazing collection. Weird and lovely and it unfolds in some deeply strange ways, sometimes right up front and sometimes slow burn. “Seven Watsons” was just astonishing. So glad to have read this, looking for his prior work soonest.

Rene Depestre, Hadriana In All My Dreams. This is billed as a classic of Haitian literature, and they got Edwidge Danticat to do the intro to it, in which she refrained from detailing every aspect of the plot, thank you, Edwidge, you are a true hero who understands why people read novels. As for this novel itself, it’s lyrically written and is an interesting demonstration of what actual Haitian people do with zombies thematically as opposed to what (mostly) white people have done with them since. (0% shambling hordes, 100% slavery-related zombies, thematically.) However, be warned: this is a book that has a sex butterfly in it quite a lot. Wow does this butterfly screw a lot of ladies. If you are just not going to be able to even, in the face of a giant sex butterfly, this is not the book for you. Hoo. It’s like the Canlit bear thing but they don’t have bears in Haiti, so I guess you make do.

Jared Farmer, Trees in Paradise: The Botanical Conquest of California. Four different sections focus on four different families of tree and their role in the state of California and its self-image and external image and economy and like that. There’s some interesting stuff in here, but the closing line makes me think that Farmer thinks he did a lot better with his case for the native California scrublands than he actually bothered to do.

Rachel Ferguson, The Brontes Went to Woolworths. Kindle. I have been trying to figure out how to talk about this book, because I love it so much, and yet it has one of the best-constructed plot twists I have ever read in my life, and I really want everybody else who reads it to have the chance at the experience of “oh yeah, I see what she’s doing here…OH WOW I DID NOT SEE WHAT SHE WAS DOING HERE” that I had reading it. It starts out both criticizing and accepting its place in the genre of “funny, well-written books about wacky families of sisters” and…expands from there quite a lot. There are things about it that are astonishingly sweet and some that are astonishingly weird, and…wow, yeah. It is from the early 1930s, and there is at least one place where the ambient anti-Semitism of the period shows up in passing in the text, but in general it is not going to smack you with a lot of racist idioms while it’s rattling along doing its thing.

Adam Kucharski, The Rules of Contagion: Why Things Spread — And Why They Stop. This book came out in 2020, late enough in 2020 to be able to talk about some COVID things and dodge some assumptions that COVID might have invalidated, although Kucharski quite rightly did not refocus the entire book to be about COVID. This book covers social and economic ideas of contagion as well as biological ones. Not more cheerful than you’d expect from the title, but not as bad as it could have been.

Matthew Loux, The Time Museum Vol. 2. A teen adventure comic through space and time. Wacky time loop hijinks, teen relationship hijinks…the jinks in this are extremely high, is what I’m saying. I’m…not that thrilled with the use of Richard Nixon, did not find it particularly thoughtful even in this context. Ah well.

Honor Moore, ed., Poems from the Women’s Movement. This is 1-3 poems by tons of different women, very much political/movement poems for the most part. Some of them are amazing, a lot of them are more the kind of writing that you get when people are new to a space and trying to feel out what can be done in it–expansion work rather than refinement work, which is interesting if you’re studying that but not a good representation of the best work women can do on political topics. Historically very interesting, though.

Ryan North, Erica Henderson, and Rico Renzi, The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: I’ve Been Waiting for a Squirrel Like You. Full of dinosaurs. Full to the brim with puns and dinosaurs. A lot of series work makes me say, “don’t start here,” but go ahead and start here, you’ll pick up everything you need to know about Squirrel Girl and friends. And dinosaurs.

Arden Powell, The Faerie Hounds of York. Really does what it says on the tin. Between the type of magical setting and the type of love story, it sort of sits on a shelf with Emily Tesh’s work–I prefer Emily’s, but this is a fun read too.

Neil Price, The Viking Way: Magic and Mind in Late Iron Age Scandinavia. This is so great. Lots of stuff about the traditions of shamanism in this place and time, some of the best understanding and integration of Saami material into a book that is primarily but not solely about the adjacent Norse culture. Lots of research notes in here, yum.

Richard Rothstein, The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America. I think a lot of Americans should read this book. A lot of us (including me) were explicitly taught in school that outside the South, segregation in cities was a de facto segregation, not a de jure segregation–enforced by bigoted private individuals and custom rather than by the law of the land. Rothstein lays out chapter and verse of how that is very, very much not the case, and how federal government institutions worsened segregation conditions with explicit policy and in some cases created segregation in formerly integrated neighborhoods. I would love a follow-up volume called The FHA: Holy Crap How Did They Get So Completely Terrible, but this is still really valuable stuff. Especially since it’s the sort of stuff that ordinary citizens can easily live through in their own lifetimes and not know is going on, even as it directly affects them.

Stephen Spotswood, Fortune Favors the Dead. This extremely charming mystery is set in the ’40s and has a gender-swapped Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin feel. The elder of the detective pair has relapsing-remitting MS, and the younger used to be a circus hand. They are fun and entertaining, and I want a whole bunch more of their adventures as soon as that can reasonably be arranged.

Lilah Sturges and Polterink, Lumberjanes: True Colors. I have now read enough Lumberjanes to have clear favorites in art style, and Polterink is right up there at the top. This is a beautiful volume with the classic Lumberjanes themes of being yourself with friends who appreciate just that.

Lynne Thomas, Michael Damian Thomas, et al, eds., Uncanny Magazine Issue 38. Kindle. I make a policy of not reviewing anything I’m in, and I have a story in this. But I did indeed read it!

Nghi Vo, When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain. The second novella in its series, storytelling from multiple cultural points of view, one of which is a tiger shapeshifter. So much fun, I want more of this, yay. I particularly liked the mammoth companion.

Shannon Watters, Kat Leyh, and Anne-Marie Rogers, Lumberjanes: Mind Over Mettle. Not as pretty or as focused as the previous Lumberjanes of this fortnight, but still good fun when we need just that.

Yi Lei, My Mind Will Grow Like a Tree. Poems from a Chinese woman poet in the 1980s and on. Fascinating to see some of the commonalities, having read a bunch of American women’s poetry of that era, and some of the differences. I’m a little perplexed by the translator wanting things to seem “familiar” to American readers, and I was left wondering which things and what they originally said. But if I was bilingual, this beautiful volume had all the original texts, so I could look and see.

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