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Books read, late August

Jarod K. Anderson, Love Notes from the Hollow Tree. I found this volume of poetry rather didactic, focused on supposed insights the poet had without a lot of fireworks in the language or image department.

Steve Brusatte, The Rise and Reign of the Mammals. This is about mammalian evolution from their first distinguishable appearance, and it has a lot of really interesting parts. I felt it was somewhat marred by the author’s tendency to talk about evolution as directed and/or directional in ways that I’m sure he felt were easily understood to be figures of speech, but…people do not actually understand that very well, it’s important not to reinforce that proto-bats were not following their dreams and working hard to make it happen when they evolved the features that allow for flight, just for example. Nobody is the pinnacle of evolution. Evolution is not a thing that has pinnacles. Lots of great stuff about jawbones here, though.

P. Djeli Clark, The Black God’s Drums. I see why this got so many rave reviews a few years back, because it’s so much fun! Airships in a fantasy historical Louisiana, wow, yes, love it, more.

Brandon Crilly, Catalyst. Discussed elsewhere.

Hannah Gadsby, Ten Steps to Nanette: A Memoir Situation. I love Nanette and Douglas, I think Gadsby is so brilliant, and this book was an interesting companion to that material. I wanted to give it to the parents of a few friends who are queer and neurodiverse, because there were very relatable elements in this book that I think might be much easier to get across about a third party than about their own children, and Gadsby did such a good job of communicating them. Mostly I just wanted to bake her cookies.

Linda Gregg, All of It Singing: New and Selected Poems. This was another case where the poet and I were ships passing in the night–I could see what she was doing but I couldn’t feel what she was doing. Our rhythms did not mesh. This happens.

Kate Heartfield, The Embroidered Book. Best thing she’s done so far. Love it. Did you need Hapsburgs in your fantasy? you totally did. It’s just chock full of Hapsburgs, Hapsburgs as far as the eye can see, and the concept of magic Kate’s got going is far more intense on the subject of exchange and personal sacrifice than most of what you see out there. I had a tiny quibble with a minute fraction of the ending, but not enough to prevent me recommending this book wholeheartedly.

Winifred Holtby, Anderby Wold. Holtby’s first book, about a Socialist agitator coming to a small Yorkshire village in 1913 (written in 1923). It’s hilarious in parts and outright tragic in other parts; it is not the masterwork that South Riding is, and there is some Irish stereotyping in it. But that last bit aside it was still a mostly lovely read.

R. F. Kuang, Babel. Another “best thing she’s done so far. Love it” book for August. As long-time readers of this blog know, I am a sucker for writing about translation, and this is explicitly about translation, and explicitly about colonialism, and also it is a beautifully done historical fantasy, and it is also a great college novel (I love college novels), and it is also a lovely book about friendship, and…look, I recommend it, okay? I highly recommend it.

Ken Liu, Speaking Bones. The stunning conclusion of this series. I felt like this was somewhat tighter than the third book but still had quite a lot of Liu’s eagerness to show the backstory of every fantastical military innovation…but at the same time, did I enjoy those backstories? I sure did. Don’t start here, but I do recommend the series–it gets where it’s going eventually, and as long as you’re not in a hurry it’s a good ride.

Anna Meriano, Love Sugar Magic: A Mixture of Mischief. The third in a series of MG books about magic, friendship, family, and baking. Probably better to start at the beginning of the series but fine to start here. The family stuff in this book shook me up (in a good way), and I loved it when the characters had the opportunity to be stupid and not confide in each other and rejected that opportunity. Because there are still plenty of problems when you are not making more of them by being a jerk to the people you’re closest to and/or fueling the classic “idiot plot.” Anyway, fun times.

John Milton, Paradise Lost. Reread. So when you go to do a retelling, you ask yourself: what am I bringing to this retelling? What’s the new bit that’s me? And from what I can see, some of the crucial things Milton brought to the story of the Fall were: 1) English verse, 2) lashings of sexism (no really, way more sexism than the original), and 3) a sense of the world as the size that we now know it. That last part was fascinating to me, that when he was talking about the whole world, he meant it in roughly the way that a modern person would mean it. He knew there was such a place as Peru and felt like it had to be accounted for somehow in this story’s references. And considering how recently he had a chance to know that, it was astonishing to me how integrated it was into the text, how he didn’t just handwave it away as of no consequence. The sexism, though. Lord. There is an entire speech from Adam that’s basically, “the angels are all dudes, why didn’t you make us all dudes? why didn’t you make Adam and Steve, God?” I am paraphrasing but not maliciously, that is really what his speech says. There is a whole heaping helping of “she’s beautiful but wow is she dumb” in the concept of Eve in this telling. Sigh.

Dorothy Parker, Enough Rope. Kindle. Parker is quotable–we all know she’s quotable. What was interesting to me was how differently she came off in aggregate than in snippets. Yes, there was the bright, brittle, witty cynicism, but also there was quite a lot of acknowledgment that she had been hurt, more willingness to have something beneath that surface. (But still funny.)

Lina Rather, Sisters of the Forsaken Stars. Sequel, and I recommend reading the first one first, because this is a lot of consequences from the first set of actions, and the characters hang together perfectly well if you know what’s come before, but I think if you didn’t there would be several moments of “who’s this other person, why do we care.” The rebel space nuns have not stopped space rebelling. Did you want them to? I sure didn’t.

Emma Southon, Agrippina: The Most Extraordinary Woman of the Roman World. Okay, this is a very weird book. It’s a biography of Agrippina that Southon decided to write with loads of pop culture references to make the Roman stuff make more sense to the modern reader. Except…I feel like a lot of the specific references she chose were for a very specific audience. I am in that audience. But there was at least one reference that friends ten years older and ten years younger than me did not get when I asked them about it, and I suspect there are a lot more. So…I suspect that within the next decade the pop culture stuff in this book will be more alien than the Roman stuff, not less. Is that okay? Of course it’s okay, I read Victorian writers who are doing exactly the same thing 150 years before Southon, and it’s fascinating. But it’s something to know about the book, that it’s not very formal and is very referential. Also Agrippina, I mean, Nero’s mom, Caligula’s sister, this was going to be a weird book anyway. No way it couldn’t be.

Rebecca Stott, Dark Earth. For me this book suffered from being set in a milieu I have put a lot of research into and therefore have a lot of opinions about, that is to say, immediately post-Roman Britain. So I kept being snagged out of the story (it’s an historical fantasy) by reactions that can be summed up as “I see why you think that but I think this instead and have you read….” Which is too bad, because the character relationships and prose were quite good, so if you’re not weird about post-Roman Britain like me, you may well enjoy it.

Davide Turcato, Making Sense of Anarchism: Errico Maltesta’s Experiments with Revolution, 1889-1900. I think one of the most gratifying things about this book is how literally the title is true: Turcato is actually going on the premise that people often do things for reasons that make some sense to them at the time–shocking, I know–and that it’s worth looking at what those reasons are rather than throwing our hands up and saying, “Anarchists! they were irrational!” They quite often were not, and by taking this approach, Turcato manages to do radical things like…actually looking for someone rather than taking a contemporary letter that he has “disappeared” as in some way factual (since…human beings do not actually have that power…this was fruitful). Should this be your first or only book on 19th century anarchism, probably not, but it’s really interesting for the portion it is about.

Nghi Vo, Into the Riverlands. Discussed elsewhere.

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