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Books read, early February

Leif Bersweden, The Orchid Hunter. This guy took his gap year to find all the orchids in Britain and Ireland in the wild. Just to…drive around and go see them. The best part of this is when he’s talking about orchids. Yay botany! Sometimes it seems like someone said to him, “Leif, mate, add a personal touch or two,” and…honestly he is not more interesting or a better writer than your average 23-year-old (he did it when he was 19, wrote about it when he was 23), so he doesn’t really manage to make getting texts from his dad or thinking about a girl while he was orchid hunting vivid or special, just…get back to the orchids. If you’re not interested in botany, this is not one of those lyrical and lovely books that will elevate a nonfiction topic that is not otherwise of interest to you. If you don’t think, “Ooh, orchids!”, probably read something else.

Jeannine Hall Gailey, The Robot Scientist’s Daughter. This is the third of Gailey’s collections of poetry I’ve read, and the best developed thematically and the most gut-wrenching, I think. A great place to introduce yourself to her work, if you’re all right with both literal and figurative fallout, which. Well. I am.

Max Gladstone, Last Exit. Discussed elsewhere.

David Graeber and David Wengrow, The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity. A really interesting choice to read in close proximity with Last Exit, because they both deal intimately with how we sometimes limit ourselves in what we imagine of other humans and how society can work, how our assumptions trip us up. Obviously from completely different angles. Graeber and Wengrow want to challenge a linear-universal narrative of progress of human cultures, and they have lined up all sorts of examples of how cultures don’t in fact follow a straight line and can’t be shoved into boxes–and also how they sometimes develop in conscious or forced contrast to neighboring cultures. Lots of stuff to look into further here.

Alix E. Harrow, A Mirror Mended. Discussed elsewhere.

Ellen Key, The Woman Movement. Kindle. A Swedish writer trying to take on board what women can expect of men, the world, and themselves with this newfangled first-wave feminism thing. Since her assumptions of what women can expect of men are so low that you could bury the bar in the ground–she is very much one of the late 19th/early 20th century people who doesn’t seem to have noticed that feminism might have anything to offer men–there are a great many cringe-worthy moments in this. She is also writing from that era when she had no idea that there might be anything wrong with eugenics and no immediately vivid examples of what was already going very wrong. (Key died in 1926; this book is from 1912.) It took me over a year to get through reading it in bits and pieces, because other parts of Key’s work have interested me, but this is one with wall-to-wall yikes, and I can’t really recommend it unless you’re interested in this part of the history of how people tried out various angles of what exactly it is we’re talking about when we’re talking about gender.

Fonda Lee, Jade Legacy. This is the sort of story people mean when they say “the triumphant conclusion.” For heaven’s sake don’t start here. Go back to the beginning of this trilogy, it is all out now and you can have the entire saga with blood and jade and magic and family and love and betrayal, all of it, you can have the big action-y doorstoppers all at once, because it’s all here now, and this is definitely the ending this series deserved. Wow. Wow.

Tracy Metz and Maartje van den Hewel, Salt and Sweet: Water and the Dutch. This is substantially a book of images–paintings, photos–but there are also essays, and the entire theme is the interface of sea and freshwater and how the Dutch manage it historically and in the present. There are beautiful things to look at and fascinating things to think about, and it is not just for people interested in environmentalism and science fiction, but for us, yes, this, definitely this.

Brandon O’Brien, Can You Sign My Tentacle? My favorite of this book is the closing poem, which I have loved before. There’s a lot of it for which I am not the target audience simply because I am not a Lovecraft fan, but on the other hand it gives me a fascinating look at how someone else interacts with those narratives that have their own problems of which he is all too aware–how he takes that tension and makes it into new art.

Mary-Frances O’Connor, The Grieving Brain: The Surprising Science of How We Learn from Love and Loss. O’Connor is aiming this book at a very, very generalist audience, so if you are interested in what people’s brains are doing during grief but are afraid it might be too technical, fear not. There are a few areas where her metaphors really do not work for me, but there’s also a calm and compassionate recognition of the diversity of forms grief can take, and some stuff that may be useful if you’re grieving yourself or know anyone who is. Y’know, or know anyone who is, while we’re still in a pandemic. Sigh.

Daniel José Older, Ballad and Dagger. Discussed elsewhere.

Isabela Oliveira and Jed Sabin, eds., Xenocultivars: Stories of Queer Growth. Many of these stories were of the category “I’m not the target audience, and that’s okay, it’s good to read things that aren’t aimed at me sometimes,” but two really touched my heart anyway. I found Julian Stuart’s “The Aloe’s Bargain” charming and sweet. And then…E.A. Crawley’s “How to Make a Spell Jar” absolutely was aimed at me, but not for the reasons on the title of the anthology: it’s a 4H story! It’s a magical 4H story! I loved it, I was so happy, yay.

Stephen Spotswood, Murder Under Her Skin. The second in this series that is basically a gender-swapped Wolfe and Goodwin in tone. Willowjean (Will)’s past with the circus has come calling in the form of a dead tattooed lady, and she and Ms. Pentecost have to investigate–the lady in question was one of Will’s old friends, but so are most of the suspects. I was absolutely in the mood for this kind of mystery, and Spotswood delivered–I’m glad to have the promise of more of this series ahead.

Jenny Uglow, Elizabeth Gaskell. I’m frankly willing to read Jenny Uglow writing about just about anybody, including people I have no inherent interest in, but I also really love the works of Elizabeth Gaskell, so having a trusted and lucid biographer for her was a special treat. I especially enjoyed watching Gaskell’s relationships with other writers of the period unfold, watching them critique each other’s manuscripts and host each other for visits and generally…well, behave like us. This is a warm and lovely volume that doesn’t mistake its affection for its subject for any kind of perfection on her part. I wish I saw more of that balance. I’m glad to find it here.

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