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Books read, early March

Daina Ramey Berry and Kali Nicole Gross, A Black Women’s History of the United States. This is a speed run through Black women in America, mostly American political life. (It is explicitly inclusive of trans women, as it should be.) It is quite short, sometimes very simplified but always very brief. If you know someone who needs to know more about Black women in the US and is not going to take the time to read a collection of longer works, this is a good thing to hand them, but don’t mistake it for something that it isn’t.

David Brakke, The Gnostics: Myth, Ritual, and Diversity in Early Christianity. I feel like I’ve read a lot of work in the last decade that is explicitly corrective of the assumption that if history did come out a certain way, that’s the way it had to come out, and there’s a lot of that here. There’s a lot of distinguishing between what was actually the “mainstream” or “establishment” body of Christian thought, as opposed to Gnostic groups, and what was a whole mess of different Christians thinking different things, some of which coalesced into an establishment eventually. (There was a lot of mess in this era. Which is interesting.) Brakke is also being careful not to make Gnostics into a monolith they weren’t in reality. Not a long read but a sharp one.

Agatha Christie, The Murder of Roger Aykroyd. Kindle. Mostly I’ve been reading the Agatha Christie novels a friend gets to and recommends, but this one was free on Gutenberg, so I picked it up. It was very readable, not terribly much toward the bigoted end of Christie prose…and then the ending was so gimmicky and stupid. Maybe I wouldn’t have thought of the ending if I’d been born in 1878 instead of 1978? but she explicitly telegraphed it in so many places. And relied on it for the appeal of the book. So. Meh. You could do better, and she did.

Beverly Gage, G-Man: J. Edgar Hoover and the Making of the American Century. There was so much J. Edgar Hoover in that J. Edgar Hoover. This book has a tone of “can you believe this $#@*! guy?” at many turns, and that was absolutely appropriate, but even with that choice of tone: wow was it a lot to have over 700 pages of J. Edgar Hoover. Important figure, useful to know what influences and effects he had, but I was so glad to be done reading this book. I think Gage made an important point in the last section: that while Hoover certainly sometimes chose to be a villain, he wasn’t the villain–that is, we can’t let recognition of his terrible choices let other people off the hook for theirs.

David Graeber, Pirate Enlightenment, or the Real Libertalia. Malagasy pirates, traders, and their social experiments–with a strong element of one of Graeber’s favorite questions, which is: who gets credit for having agency and who is assumed to have been swept along with the “important” people, and where are those assumptions wrong? A very short book but interesting.

Barbara Hambly, One Extra Corpse. Second in her 1920s Hollywood mystery series. It’s an era Hambly clearly enjoys writing, and while it’s less compelling to me than the Benjamin January series, it’s still fun, and I’d rather that she try different things when she has the urge.

Patrick House, Nineteen Ways of Looking at Consciousness. You don’t have to have read Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei to enjoy this book, but gosh, you can, it’s so good! It’s one of my favorite books! And finding this, a book about neuroscience inspired by it, just made me so happy. Vivid, compelling writing about a topic that interests me, inspired by another piece of vivid, compelling writing about a substantially different topic that interests me. Dancing about architecture at its finest.

Talia Lakshmi Kolluri, What We Fed to the Manticore. Animal-perspective stories walk a fine line between animals being basically humans in weird costumes and animals being completely other than human. Kolluri’s animals sometimes talk, which puts her toward the first end of that spectrum rather than the second, but she does try to keep their motivations rooted in as much of their actual experience as she feels we can understand. (This is a collection of short literary stories, all of which are from an animal’s perspective.)

Kien Lam, Extinction Theory. Lots of poems inspired by personal experience, scientific theory, or a combination of the two. I appreciated this more intellectually than emotionally, but that’s nothing to sneeze at.

Rebecca Makkai, I Have Some Questions for You. Wow, wow, wow, this book. This book. Makkai is doing so much here. It’s about parasocial relationships in this millennium, sure, but it’s also about the process of reconsidering things that happened to you in your teens, things that were accepted at the time, and figuring out what you think of them now. And which of the people you know from that era are worthy of your adult trust. And it does an absolutely beautiful “but isn’t it all more complicated really? also sometimes no, sometimes really not” twist that has the intellectual honesty not to mush things together that don’t really belong together. All the content warnings here, because this is a book that is grappling hard with violence against women and with social pressures. And there are lines that just…absolutely capture being in that place and dealing with the news cycle of this decade. I feel like this is one of the books that it will be useful to hand the next generations to tell them: what was it like to be us, to be my demographic. All the little details, sure, but also the emotional arc of “wow that was super not okay and I’m going to need to deal with it, aren’t I, and what else is going to turn out not to be okay along the way.” Be in a good place if you’re going to read this, but wow is it so good.

Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom. For reasons that may or may not become clear later, I’m going to be reading a lot of political prisoner memoir in the next bit. This was an interesting volume of…not really that. Mandela is very, very much not focused on interiority here. This is a political document. However, it’s an interesting political document and one that gave me a much stronger understanding of how this person managed to come out of prison still a political leader rather than a venerable has-been.

Shion Miua, The Easy Life in Kamusari. This is a lightly fantastical Japanese novel about a young man who goes to work in forestry right out of school and learns about the forest and the people in the village near it. It is a nice book where nice things happen. The nice dog in it has adventures and comes out just fine. “There are trees and a dog and nice things happen” is something I absolutely need sometimes, especially in this decade, and now I have this one, and I’ve just seen there’s a sequel. Hooray.

Malka Older, The Mimicking of Known Successes. Discussed elsewhere.

Bianca Pitzorno, The Seamstress of Sardinia. I am worried about Italy, friends. Because this was a perfectly nice episodic novel about the work of a young seamstress around the turn of the last century–it wasn’t quite in the “nice things happen” category, closer to social realism, but okay–but when you read the blurbs it is hailed as a great novel of a woman’s liberation and a woman finding herself and that. And that kind of thing–what is considered liberating, what is considered a new sort of journey–varies with time. If the publication date on this had been 1922, absolutely I would characterize it that way. The pub date here is 2022. I checked three times. It’s a nice book, an easy read, a different view on the world than I usually get. But if this is what’s liberating in 2022 I am extremely concerned.

Gavriel Savit, Come See the Fair. Discussed elsewhere.

Steven Sharpin and Simon Schaeffer, Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Age. Are you interested in the philosophical fights about what’s useful proof and what’s useful experiment that characterized the late 17th century? I SURE AM. But if you read that and went “Uhhhh…no? why? no!” then this is definitely not the book for you. Basically you know from the title whether it is the book for you. Personally, this is like a hockey brawl for me, I am immediately more emotionally invested than I feel speaks well of my character, but there it is. Get him, Hobbes! Get him, Boyle!

Margery Sharp, The Flowering Thorn. This is a 1930s novel of a young society woman who spontaneously adopts a little boy and the ways in which she grows and changes because of it. It’s funny and fun and very much in the “nice things happen to nice people” category–even her friends who are horrible don’t all die of scarlet fever or lose their fortunes or anything like that, they just become visible as themselves. There are some cultural assumptions built into this that did not hold up well over the last nearly-century, but on the other hand a lot of it is still interesting and fun. And, for this plotline, unsentimental! Which is an interesting tonal thing in itself.

Sahm Venter, ed., The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela. I read this before I read Mandela’s autobiography, and it is much less worthwhile, in my opinion. The focus away from interiority is understandable but also particularly hard when reading him dealing with his close relatives. He also had a character trait that I hope is either cultural or personally understood by his family members, where his attempts at expressing sympathy were to rehearse at length the details he had imagined of what you were suffering. If this was not something that was either “yes, that’s how we do it here” or “yes, that’s how Uncle Nel does it,” it’s kind of horrifying to go through all the times when he’s piling woe on woe in his own mind for someone already actually having a pretty bad time. I also found the formatting choices interesting. The names he mentions are footnoted every single time. That is: you will find a footnote explaining that Winnie was his wife, Winnie Mandela, every time she appears in a letter. This book is half footnotes of that nature. I appreciate that they didn’t try to make a cultural determination of whether someone would be known based on their fame in the West, but it just got to be a lot. I think it’s very much for people who are quote-mining more than people who are reading, honestly–“I’ll open these letters and read one and see if he says anything interesting to my sermon,” is a mode I can easily see this volume supporting. But honestly most people who are not specifically interested in Mandela will get a much better view from the autobiography, or possibly from analysis written by other people.

Helen Young and Kavita Mudan Finn, Global Medievalism: An Introduction. Kindle. A brief introduction to ways in which fictionalized medievalism shows up in pop culture and ways in which this can be global rather than Faux France all the time. A different angle on a familiar topic, since this is academic study rather than fiction writers getting down to brass tacks or any other fastening device.

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