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Books read, early October

Antonia Angress, Sirens and Muses. Art school novel about artists and commercialism and collaboration and an entire cluster of related themes, including theme itself. Some of the characters make gleefully poor decisions, some struggle to do better, lots of thought about why we value particular art.

Terry J. Benton-Walker, Blood Debts. Discussed elsewhere.

Lyndsie Bourgnon, Tree Thieves: Crime and Survival in North America’s Woods. Bourgnon’s focus in this book is poverty in logging/formerly-logging communities and the social effects on the forest ensuing from it. Which is interesting and probably worth knowing about, but I wish she gave more context about whether individual poor and working class people are the main sources of forest crime and negative impact on forest ecosystems and how else we might define tree theft/other forest theft.

Octavia Butler, Imago. Reread. I think it’s pretty clear that Butler wanted to write about colonialism and empire with these books, and at that part she did a very interesting uncomfortable job. (Which was clearly her goal. If you read this trilogy and feel cozy, that’s…shall we say not the intended response.) But in the late ’80s/early ’90s when she was writing it, we were in a very different place with writing about gender and about sexuality and consent. So the farther you get in this trilogy, the more the gender essentialism becomes central, and the more the characters who “can’t help themselves” and “absolutely must” have sex with other people have POV sections. Which are not “wow what a rapey asshole this person is,” and yet: wow, so much rapey assholery in this book. So relieved to be done with it. There are books like Jo Walton’s Tooth and Claw that take a sexist attitude like that, apply it to a non-human species, and show how clear it is that humans do not actually have the trait the sexist attitude assumes. Because this was not central to what it looks like Butler intended to do, that’s not the case here. This may be my least favorite of her books.

Kevin Crossley-Holland, The Anglo-Saxon World: An Anthology. This is a compendium of things we have from the pre-Norman Conquest world: wills, letters, poetry, recipes, riddles. It contains the entirety of the Crossley-Holland translation of Beowulf, which is not even my third-favorite translation of Beowulf. Crossley-Holland himself is explicitly writing for an audience that conceives of itself as having Anglo-Saxon ancestors–he talks about it in his notes. Despite these drawbacks I find this an immensely useful and interesting volume to have.

John Demos, The Heathen School: A Story of Hope and Betrayal in the Early Republic. The process of assimilation and the obliteration of Native cultures can be horrifying, but also I feel like we owe it to each other to know what’s been done in this area. This particular school was far earlier and less organized than the infamous Native Schools in the US and Canada–it was very much an amalgam of any male non-Christian person they could get to come, from 13yo Cherokees to full-grown Hawaiian men and at least one Jewish immigrant. This school explicitly aimed at converting its students to Christianity and promoting the success of their own project as a template, and Demos covers a lot of ground in how the aims changed over time but also were not consistent from person to person involved.

Nisid Hajari, Midnight’s Furies: The Deadly Legacy of India’s Partition. One of the problems of starting to learn about horrible things that happened in history is that if you don’t know a lot, you can’t always tell whether the book you’ve found is reasonably fair-minded. Literally zero people in this book look good by the end, but Hajari is not someone who thinks that “fair” means “equivalent,” and Hajari is willing to be clear that specific individuals in each community did have the potential to be better or (much, much) worse than others. Not cheerful but informative.

Dan Jones, Summer of Blood: England’s First Revolution. Wat Tyler! John Ball! “When Adam delved and Eve span” and peasants who had very solid ideas of what was going wrong and not at all solid ideas of what they might do about it.

R. B. Lemberg, The Unbalancing. This is a lovely place to start reading Birdverse stories if you haven’t started them already. The worldbuilding is clear but not tedious, and the starkeeper’s relationship with the poet is spiky and lovely and real.

Marina Lostetter, The Helm of Midnight. Discussed elsewhere.

Rebecca Makkai, The Great Believers. A bookstore owner friend of mine says this is what he gives people who come in looking for a tearjerker, and I believe it. It’s a two-timeline book, and the first of them is gay men at the very early height of the AIDS crisis. And the other is 30 years later but doesn’t give away very much of who survives and in what condition. Also the second is about the relationship of a mother with her estranged daughter, so…there are a lot of reasons you might want to go into this one braced for it and/or on a good day for you.

Emily Midorikawa, Out of the Shadows: Six Visionary Victorian Women in Search of a Public Voice. And by “Visionary” we mean “the Spiritualist movement.” I don’t know, this was a weird middle ground for me between the depth of focus of a biography and the breadth of a more general history. Fine but not probably the best place to start on this topic.

Catherine Musemeche, Lethal Tides: Mary Sears and the Marine Scientists Who Helped Win World War II. I was hoping for more oceanography and less WWII-era sexism. The sexism is defeated by awesomeness at great personal cost etc.! And that’s great and it’s a fine book of that type! I just. Would like more oceanography.

Eleanor Parker, Conquered: The Last Children of Anglo-Saxon England. One of the rare contemporary uses of “Anglo-Saxon” in a title that I don’t side-eye, because Parker is distinguishing among British ethnicities here: she means not the Normans and not the Celts and there is not a very good alternate term for that distinction that I know of. She traces the fates of the culturally last examples of some different power groups from the pre-Conquest society, and it’s pretty cool. If you’re not clear on how things generally went in the 11th century, probably not a good starting point.

Jane Ridley, George V: Never a Dull Moment. Ridley’s thesis is that while George V has a reputation for personal dullness, his reign was excessively interesting. Fair enough. She seemed to promise that she was going to have theories of why George V managed to keep his throne when monarchies were falling all around him, but I found that less clear/convincing than “oh gosh what a time to be the head of somebody’s state.” That part was pretty good, though. She has dodged between the Scylla and Charybids of either idolizing or hate-biographing somebody. Also I see why this was not called George V and Mary with the same subtitle, but a rather substantial chunk of it was about Queen Mary.

Karen Russell, Sleep Donation. A science fiction novella about insomnia and siphoning sleep off people with all sorts of cultural commentary layered in. It was published as weird fiction/literary fiction, band the ending is more in those genres, but it is no less SF than a lot of other SF and I wish more people had talked about it when it was new. Also just reading this book made me grateful for sleep.

Cat Sebastian, The Missing Page. The second in a charming post-WWII mystery series (that is, written now, set immediately post-WWII). Two men struggling to recover from their wounds (some of them even physical) have found each other but are also solving crimes, and frankly my main complaint in this series is that she didn’t start writing it very long ago so I don’t have a giant stack o f them to catch up on.

Greg van Eekhout, Fenris and Mott. Stray puppy is Fenris, extremely cute and fluffy, and Mott has to stop him from eating the moon and bringing down the absolute worst of Ragnarok–even when adults are on the other side. Environmental context is clear without being preachy, and the characters are a delight. Loved this.

Andrea Wulf, The Brother Gardeners: Botany, Empire, and the Birth of an Obsession and Founding Gardeners: the Revolutionary Generation, Nature, and the Shaping of the American Nation. Wulf is far better at the Old World than the New. This pair of books arose from one body of research, and it’s a very interesting take on how the white men at the heads of an established and an emerging empire influenced the course of botany and were influenced by it in turn. It’s a little curious that Wulf doesn’t seem to think of the gardeners these empires ran over, or in the case of the book about North America even acknowledge their existence. She has fallen hard for the myth of untouched wilderness in North America. If you want to read about the establishment, these are a reasonable source, but don’t mistake her focus for the world even when she does.

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