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Books read, late October

Charlie Jane Anders, Victories Greater Than Death. If you like space opera with lots of different aliens and friends pulling together to make the thing go, this is for you. Teens figuring out their identity while evil people shoot space guns at them! Okay!

Kate Baer, What Kind of Woman. This is the kind of book of poetry that is attempting to disprove Tolstoy’s maxim about unhappy families, because these poems are very much about the kind of unhappiness that you see in dozens of magazine articles on half the websites on the internet. Are they keenly observed, sure, but they’re keen observations of husbands who wouldn’t dream of cooking or changing a diaper, and I do hope the second wave comes for Baer and her friends soon, as this volume came out last year.

Italo Calvino, Numbers in the Dark. Reread. I have the unfortunate habit of reading things all at once, or at most over a week, and I feel like this would have been improved by reading it one story at a time. Some of them are satire that still has quite a piercing blade, some more localized, and there are moments of racism and other -isms that I would hope we simply would not endure in a contemporary writer. But there are also moments where the mostly flash-length stories are just such perfect little gems.

William Dalrymple, The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire. This is an incredibly depressing book very much because it’s so well done. It chronicles exactly what the subtitle says: here’s how the East India Company went in and pillaged what is now India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh. Here is how they kept wrangling their government contracts so that they ended up with UK government backing for some of their incredibly terrible decisions. Here is the propaganda they spread to try to blame the people they hurt for the hurt inflicted on them. Not that Dalrymple pretends that everyone in South Asia was a perfect angel, but he knows he doesn’t have to, the idea that if anyone in South Asia ever did anything wrong the East India Company was perfectly justified is exactly the kind of propaganda he explodes in detail here.

Victory Hugo, Ninety-Three. If you’ve been thinking that you might want some Victor Hugo but you just do not have the time and energy to commit to one of the really long ones, do I have the recommendation for you! This is Victor Hugo’s short (no, really!) novel of the French Revolution! It’s got Marat and Robespierre and theirs arguing in the middle! It’s got all the Romanticism and none of the long days of your life dedicated to reading it! This is Victor Hugo: The Vacation.

Andri Snær Magnason, LoveStar. If you’ve been missing Kurt Vonnegut and thinking, gosh, if only there was a contemporary Vonnegut, at least as satirical and surreal but with a slightly less complicated relationship with science fiction–oh, and Icelandic–then here you are! This is the book! Apocalyptic, socially critical, ridiculous, all the things you used to get from Vonnegut, now with a new and Nordic twist.

Hieu Minh Nguyen, Not Here. Local poet, writing about being queer, immigrant, fat, in a difficult family, all sorts of things. I am not his main audience. I don’t have to be to see what he’s doing well.

Megan E. O’Keefe, Catalyst Gate. The conclusion of this giant space opera series full of clones and spaceships and varying family relationships and kinds of intelligence. Definitely absolutely do not start here, but if you’ve enjoyed the beginning of this trilogy, you’ll find this a satisfying end.

Mary Roach, Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law. A light-hearted romp through animal encounters with the laws humans attempt to make about bodily harm and property. Lots of interesting trivia, won’t take you long, chatty voice.

DaVaun Sanders, B. Sharise Moore, et al, eds., Fiyah Issue 20. Kindle. Lots of interesting perspectives on artificial intelligence in this theme issue. My favorite element was Renee S. Christopher’s “When I fell apart my mother put me back together,” which I have reread several times since I first read it.

Bill Schutt, Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History. A family member loaned me this book without me asking, and I was initially dubious, figured I’d give it a look and either read it or return it with thanks unread. I was won over by the smooth prose voice and the fact that Schutt has no intention of covering serial killers. He starts with cannibalism in the animal world, talking about under what circumstances which species engage in eating members of their own species. His discussion of humans is particularly interesting when he’s considering under what circumstances human anthropologists are willing to report cannibalism that they have not witnessed and why, and when they are eager to debunk it and why. This is still not for the squeamish but really could be far worse.

Maggie Smith, Goldenrod. Like the Baer volume above, these poems chronicle a troubled (in fact, ending) marriage. Unlike the Baer, Smith seems to be observing a very specific corner of the world, naturally and personally. There are moments of grace throughout as well as moments of grief.

Samanth Subramanian, A Dominant Character: The Radical Science and Restless Politics of J.B.S. Haldane. A fascinating if flawed book. Haldane is a character and a half, and Subramanian is interested in what made him make such large politically-driven mistakes when he had every scientific reason not to. So am I. What I think makes this book less successful is that there is not enough Naomi Mitchison. Okay, but really though: not just because I am a fan of Naomi Mitchison, but because Subramanian seems to want to treat Haldane as a singular being less than a member of a very powerful and well-connected family, and I contend that not only does that deprive us of some of his most interesting interactions (his novelist sister being my personal favorite–and overidentification character–but by no means the only one) but of a great deal of the context that makes other people’s reactions to him make sense. Which is what we want a biography for. So…if I had three or four biographies of Haldane–and heaven knows there’s enough material for them–this would be a fine one to have as just the “why did he screw this stuff up” volume, but as the only one I’ve read and the only one I currently have access to, it’s a bit lacking. (And even so I’d rather have a biography of Mitchison that touches a bit on Haldane. And a pony. Well.)

E. Catherine Tobler, Sonya Taaffe, David Gilmore, et al, eds., The Deadlands Issues 5 and 6. Kindle. What lovely things, what a lovely time to read them, particularly Amanda Downum’s column and particularly Alexis Gunderson’s “All the Open Highways.”

Anne Ursu, The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy. This MG fantasy felt like it was reading something I’d read as a child, but for the first time. Do you know what I mean? Not like Anne had in any way plagiarized, not that kind of familiar. Not repetitive or derivative. But like it fit in with the sort of thing I’d enjoyed as a child, except somehow I had never read it before now. It was the missing one, and now it’s here.

James Wright, Selected Poems. I used to say that I tend to either love or hate poetry, and that’s less true now that I’m reading more poetry, but it is sure true of this volume of James Wright poems, of which I loved some and hated several. There were a few of the “I have keenly observed this thing” poems that took my breath away, and quite a lot of “I’m drinking and wallowing in crapulence and it is the ’60s and/or ’70s” poems for which I have very little patience. Would the balance be different in a collected rather than selected works, I rather doubt it, I think it would just be more so. Ah well.

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