Posted on Leave a comment

Books read, early February.

Things are really quite bad here. Lots of time on the couch with a book. Hoping for it to ease up…any time now, really. Any time now would be good. In the meantime, here’s what I’ve been reading:

Jesse Bering, Perv: The Sexual Deviant in All of Us. I cannot think of any reason you might want to read this book. Bering has a breezy, jokey tone, but he’s very patchy on documentation vs. blathering on with his opinions. There are several interesting books to get written on how we know what we know about sexual response and hard-wiring vs. experiential wiring and how knowledge of taboos and accepted practices gets passed along culturally. This is none of them. Also, Bering starts early on with the assumption that harm should be a gold standard for what is and is not tolerated by a wider society, though individuals and groups may have additional standards for what they personally cannot or will not do or stand for; sounds reasonable enough to me, but he never makes the argument for why–and then halfway through the book says that he hopes he has demonstrated why. Well…no. He didn’t even try to demonstrate why. (Seriously, it was: “I hope I demonstrated the thing I asserted.” “No, you just asserted it.”) And that kind of shaky logic underpins all sorts of discussion here, on a set of topics where it is least helpful and most fraught. NOT recommended, and this is the second book in as many months I’ve gotten on New Scientist’s recommendation only to find it shallow and disappointing.

Gillian Bradshaw, London in Chains (Kindle) and A Corruptible Crown. A pair of English Civil War novels about a young woman who comes to London and becomes a printer and a Leveler. They’re pretty melodramatic–the villains twirl their mustachios with great glee–and there is an element of sexual violence for our heroine to get past. But how often do I get English Civil War novels, much less novels whose plot is “our heroine becomes a printer and a Leveler”? I mean, feel free to go write me more without the sexual violence if you like; until then, beggars, choosers, you know.

James L. Cambias, A Darkling Sea. Discussed elsewhere.

Betty Boyd Caroli, The Roosevelt Women. Mothers and wives and daughters and aunts and cousins of the two Roosevelt presidents, very different personalities and politics. In some places this volume went more in-depth than I’d seen, and in others it glossed over, so it was a good companion volume for others, I think, rather than a place to start. Caroli pointed out that when she’s written about First Ladies in the past, she’s discovered that it’s less that they’re interesting for the men they’re married to and more that we get better documentation of these independently interesting people because of who they married. That’s certainly the case here. I think her decision to deal with Eleanor entirely in the context of her relationships with the rest of the Roosevelt family was a good one, since there is so much available Eleanor material elsewhere, and that’s not the case for the others.

Lyndsay Faye, Seven for a Secret. This has happened twice in a row now: I have mistaken a Lyndsay Faye title and cover on my library list for a random urban fantasy thing. “Oh, I’ll try whatever this urban fantasy thing is,” I have thought. “Maybe it’ll be good.” Lyndsay Faye does not write urban fantasy, brain! (Lyndsay Faye does not write urban fantasy, cover designers!) She writes historical mystery. No fantasy elements. Try to remember this, brain! Also, you already know you like her series, brain! Seriously, brain, keep up! (I remembered the book, just not the author/title. Oh, brains.) This is the series that’s set immediately after the founding of the New York police. This volume deals with blackbirders and the evil they did, entangled with the politics of the early New York City police being funded almost entirely by the Democratic Party, which was not at all sympathetic with abolitionists. I enjoyed it. It would probably be okay to start with this volume, but there is some arc plot that will have more emotional impact if you have the first one under your belt.

Zoe Ferraris, City of Veils and Kingdom of Strangers. Second and third in the series of mysteries set in Saudi Arabia, written by an American woman who married into a Saudi family and lived there for awhile. I think the third one is really the best, so I hope she keeps writing more, if that’s an indicator of how she’s learned to do it. The way that she explores what women manage to do within the Saudi strictures, and how the Saudi strictures change how a murder mystery can be solved, both make for fascinating twists on mystery fiction.

Valerie Hansen, The Open Empire: A History of China to 1600. A pretty good first text if you need a first text on this period. Does what it says on the tin. Also had a screamingly funny section on an extant phrase book for Korean businessmen traveling to China at the end of the period described. Every conversation included phrases like, “You’re joking! Tell me the real price!” and, “Please stop shouting!” I feel that more early language lessons should include, “Please stop shouting!” Especially language lessons for Minnesotans. Teaching us to say, “Can you please say that louder?” in Japanese but not, “Please stop shouting!” looks like a grave oversight in retrospect.

Rawn James Jr., Root and Branch: Charles Hamilton Houston, Thurgood Marshall, and the Struggle to End Segregation. I hope Rawn James Jr. goes and writes more books, because I liked this one pretty well, and the one he wrote on the desegregation of the US military was excellent. While it just says “segregation” in the title, the main focus was on educational segregation, with a little bit of union segregation thrown in where it was relevant. James’s legal experience came in very clearly with the relevant court cases. Good stuff, interesting stuff.

Snorri Kristjansson, Swords of Good Men. Grimdark Vikings. Such grimdark Vikings. There were a few quite good moments, but I…don’t actually like grimdark. Even when it’s done really quite well. I don’t enjoy the levels of bodily fluids and sexual violence. So if you want one of these, yep, here’s one of these. I don’t want one of these. You go ahead.

Peter H. Lee and Wm. Theodore de Bary, Sources of Korean Tradition Volume One: from Early Times Through the Sixteenth Century. What they mean here is Korean Religious tradition, which is why I ended up muttering, “too much Buddhism, not enough roller derby” at this book repeatedly, and at one point wailed, “there is no Dana, only Buddhism!” Don’t get me wrong: I recognize that Buddhism is immensely important to Korea’s history. It’s just that every time I would come upon a reference to something else–anything else–that might in the broader sense be considered part of Korean tradition, I would seize upon it eagerly. “So-and-so got on the ship to China.” Yes, ships? Tell me about the ships. Merchant fleets separate from the fishing boats in this period? How big? Made of what? What kind of sailing technology? “Here is what Buddhist texts they studied when they got to China.” Aughhhh. Or else something about mulberries and silk, and I would perk up, yes, tell me about the silk, tell me about the weaving industry, the dyeing industry, the silk trade, the mulberries. “Here is how they are a metaphor for Buddhism.” AUGHHHH. So I now have an extensive reference about how Buddhist and Confucian thought affected Korea in this period, which is good to know, it really is. It’s just…Korean history. A continuing quest.

Nancy Mitford, Christmas Pudding and Pigeon Pie. Two comic novels, not really upbeat but not tragic either, one in the 1930s and the other in the 1940s. The spy novel ending of Pigeon Pie had me just howling, so if you’ve read ten million non-comic spy novels, by all means go to. They’re quite short, and while there’s not a lot there, there are worse things for a day on the couch.

Chris Moriarty, The Watcher in the Shadows. I have been waiting for this sequel to The Inquisitor’s Apprentice, and then it slipped out without my noticing somehow. Definitely recommend that you start with the first one for full effect, but: magical early twentieth century New York with all sorts of class warfare and ethnic variety thought through. Very much my cup of tea.

Kenneth Oppel, Such Wicked Intent. Another of his prequels to Frankenstein. Gothy, angsty YA. Meh. Not sorry I read it, glad there aren’t more so I wouldn’t have to decide whether to keep going.

Guy Rickards, Jean Sibelius. Tolstoy was so wrong. Dozens, thousands of Finnish families of this era were unhappy in precisely this way: father drinks and everyone is miserable; father stops drinking awhile and everyone is miserable; father starts drinking again and everyone is miserable. Death of one of the children. Additionally, typhus. Seriously, the biographer was of that suboptimal kind who went around armchair-diagnosing with all sorts of things, but even so it really looks like the only interesting thing Janne Sibelius ever did was write music. If you ever think that being brilliant is enough to save you from being a crashing bore and kind of a jerk, go read a Sibelius biography. Also: I have read a great deal about a great many Finns, and Sibelius appears to be the first one who hasn’t had anything whatsoever strange and amusing happen to him. Really. Anything. Unless it’s the fault of the biographer, who didn’t seem that bad, you just would not want this man to dinner, because he would be devoid of anecdote and drink up all your booze. Go listen to the music instead and save yourself the trouble.

Marie Rutkoski, The Cabinet of Wonders. First in a middle-grade Middle-European fantasy series. Clockwork, magic globes, alchemy, plenty to like. I look forward to the rest, but the afterword made me howl with laughter, because apparently Rutkoski’s Czech relatives are my Swedish relatives in disguise.

Anya von Bremzen, Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing. Oh, I loved this. So glad that Zalena recommended it, because I probably wouldn’t have gone and found it on my own. von Bremzen goes through the decades of the Soviet Union from a culinary perspective but with digressions into other points of interest–the fate of the 1927 Uzbek Women’s Day festivities made me cry and go put various books on Uzbekistan on my wishlist, for example, and apparently I’m going to have to make Stalin’s favorite dish this summer when the little eggplants are good at the farmer’s market. Fascinating book. Vivid, funny, sad, fascinating.

Jo Walton, What Makes This Book So Great. Discussed elsewhere.

Sylvia Townsend Warner, Scenes of Childhood. Perfect for curling up on the couch while not feeling good, especially if you have an Edwardian sense of humor, which is one of the kinds of sense of humor I have. This book features The Poodle, and I kept reading bits of it out to the long-suffering Mark; it’s that kind of book. The only down side is that the rest of Sylvia Townsend Warner is not easy to get, and now I want it more.

Harriet A. Washington, Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present. This is an extremely important book to have out there, and an extremely difficult book to read. For example, the things that the “father of gynecology” actually did with black women to figure out how to treat fistula…the details are harrowing to think of. Even if you think you’re thinking of them now, unless you actually have the details, they will be more harrowing than you think. Washington was apparently quizzed by more than one person while writing this book about whether the book would make black people distrust medicine, and I think she’s correct that the practices in it would, but the book would not. I think it’s extremely important to have this information available for people who need it for specific purposes, and also I think it’s important for some people who don’t specifically need it to know it. That said, you’ll want to consider carefully whether you want to be one of those people, because…as I said, harrowing. Carefully researched, carefully considered, really intelligent and thorough. But oh, those poor people. I told a family member that I am okay with being the one in our family who holds this knowledge. It needs knowing, but…not everyone has to make themselves deal with it. We can spread that out a bit.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *