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Books read, late March

Tamar Adler, An Everlasting Meal: Cooking With Economy and Grace. Adler is very much a “use every part of the plant” cook, and it was fascinating to read this book–it’s prose, not a cookbook, though it has some recipes–with that in mind, especially as Adler’s tastes and mine are obviously not at all the same. I would, for example, never in my life claim that everything needs parsley. It did not occur to me that there were people who genuinely felt that everything needs parsley. So her approach is very congenial, her specifics are very not-me, and that combination is an interesting one.

Henri Alleg, The Question. This is another in my recent reading about political prisoners–a slim volume about being taken prisoner and tortured by the French government in Algeria when it was on its way out. Alleg was white but also bears witness to the treatment of other prisoners who were people of color. An extremely important book in its time and reminds me that of yet another part of spacetime I don’t know enough about.

Brandon Ying Kit Boey, Karma of the Sun. Do you need a postapocalyptic Himalayan SF novel? Do you not mind when rocks fall, everybody dies? Here you go, here’s the book. I ripped through it very quickly, kept wanting to pick it back up again until I was done.

Shannon Chakraborty, The Adventures of Amina Al-Sirafi. Rollicking, swashbuckling, absolutely a great deal of fun. Fantasy set on the Indian Ocean with all the cultures ringing it. Characters who are queer, characters who are trans, characters of a wide number of religions, characters with disabilities, characters who are parents…LOTS of HUMANITY in here, having adventures and buckling their swashes. Yes please. More of this.

Jared Farmer, Elderflora: A Modern History of Ancient Trees. Really old trees! Where are they! What are they like! How do we know how old they are! this and more very cool things to think about really old trees! It really is what it says on the tin.

Victoria Goddard, The Hands of the Emperor. Kindle. Approximately a third of my friends have already read this and others in the series. It was time. And I really liked the experience of reading it, I had a very good time with it, I will definitely seek out more in the series. You should know that its pacing is…stately. There are several elements whose repetition did not seem to be enriching to me. Also, and more importantly, I think I completely disagree with the politics of this book. I heard someone describe it as an ineluctably Canadian fantasy because it centers the ideals of peace, order, and good government, and it does, but…how it does so is pretty important. This is the story of the private secretary (and eventually other positions) of the Last Emperor, in a splintered many-worlds context, and the good government comes about because he is just goshdarn nice enough, hard-working enough, and a good enough friend to the autocrat who also turns out to be just goshdarn nice enough. And I…100% do not believe that the problem with autocracy is that we simply haven’t had good enough autocrats, and I feel like that’s a pretty dangerous idea and one that comes up all too often. That moves the argument onto the autocrats’ territory: arguing about whether Vladimir Putin is or is not an admirable specimen of Russian manhood concedes him too much ground, because the things that he does are not okay even if he was, and they’re not not-okay because he isn’t, if that makes sense. It’s just generally…do I have to say this? Autocracy is a bad plan, kids. It’s a bad plan even if your autocrat is a really really nice guy who is sad about the hand life dealt him. And also there are places where the “look how nice our protags are, they’re pals and we get to see them being nice pals” fun of this book–it is fun! I enjoyed that!–covers up for how much execution is on the table here. And sometimes happens. “Well, sure you might say that execution is not suitable for this crime but I can’t change the laws just like that, we have to go through processes [and in the meantime execute people who maybe shouldn’t be executed]” is actually part of this book. And that is a problem. Is it a problem that will be solved with later progress in this world? Because this is supposed to be a gentle and non-violent arc toward that process, and Goddard would really like us to feel that way. Also there is a focus on respect for minority cultures within empire, and again, I do not actually think that the problem with imperialism is that you just haven’t had a nice enough emperor and if you did there would be no problems for minority cultures within empire. I absolutely do not. There were moments that were deeply touching and brought a lump to my throat, but fundamentally I don’t actually think that you can nice your way out of autocratic imperialism, so this may continue to be a problem in this series for me. We’ll see. Friendship is magic, but it ain’t that magic.

Tristam Hunt, The Radical Potter: The Life and Times of Josiah Wedgwood. A reasonably good bio that situated Wedgwood and his life’s work in his times both artistically/creatively and politically. It wasn’t entirely written as an explanation of “how did you get from this guy to his grandson Charles Darwin in two generations,” but it did a very good job at that all the same.

Colette A. Hyman, Dakota Women’s Work: Creativity, Culture, and Exile. Unfortunately I was a bit disappointed in this book, because I felt like there were a lot of places where it wandered off into being a general history of the Dakota people in places where I felt that the balance and substance of women’s labor in that culture was getting more interesting rather than less. If you don’t know much about Dakota history, this is not the worst starting point–and I totally get that you have to retell a lot of that because a lot of people don’t know the context, I just wanted more on the title subject. A lot more.

Hettie Judah, Lapidarium: The Secret Lives of Stones. Do you ever miss the kind of book that you’d get as a very little kid, that was basically “here are some interesting facts about birds” or “planets: I know some stuff about them and now you can too”? Well, this is that for grown-ups. It’s a collection of very short, light but not weightless, essays about a series of different kinds of rocks. Not gonna lie, I had it as a bathroom book, and it would be perfect for that or similarly interrupted circumstances: here, read a page about spinels, okay, now you can set the book down again no problem.

Mitch Kachun, Festivals of Freedom: Memory and Meaning in African American Emancipation Celebrations, 1808-1915. Look at those dates. That is not a typo. Kachun starts with all the ways that American Black people found to celebrate intermediate milestones on their freedom journey. It does not neglect the horrors of racism that prompted this–or that attempted to crush it–but it does focus on celebratory events and traditions in a community whose suffering is often more centered than its joy. Really good stuff to know.

Laura Kolbe, Little Pharma. I love all the things poetry can be. Many of these poems spring from medical training and interacting with patients in a medical setting, that view embodied reality. Fascinating stuff.

Laura Lam and Elizabeth May, Seven Devils. When I read Lam’s forthcoming Dragonfall (as LR Lam), I thought, this is really the kind of secondary world fantasy we all read a lot of in the ’90s, but with less bigotry. And I feel like that about this book, too: it’s the kind of adventure space opera we all read a lot of in the ’90s, but with less bigotry. Do you want that? Because here it is. I sure want that sometimes.

Maya McGregor, The Many Half-Lived Lives of Sam Sylvester. The speculative element in this book is a very gentle one–a ghost story that might almost (but not quite) be explained away in mimetic terms. Its main focus is that of a nonbinary teen who has suffered some pretty bad things finding peace, friends, and a home for themself–and also finding out the fate of a young person who died a generation before. There are some realistically harrowing depictions of homophobic and transphobic behavior, but they are not endorsed by the text and are triumphed over.

Shahan Mufti, American Caliph: The Story of a Muslim Mystic, a Hollywood Epic, and the 1977 Siege of Washington, DC. “You all certainly got up to a lot right before I got here,” I said to Mark as I was reading this book. Mark, at the age of 2, was not very much involved in the 1977 Siege of Washington, DC, but my general point remains: that in some ways I think the hardest part of well-recorded history to learn is the stuff that happened ten years before your birth and, depending on your personality and circumstances, 5-15 years after it. Because a lot of that stuff will be The Way The World Has Always Been, and yet the people who are in charge of telling you what’s gone on will not see it as historical at all. So this book was a lot about in-fighting in American Black Muslim communities, and I feel like I need a lot more context on that to judge whether it was well-done or biased or anything like that. But it was a start. It was a start, and I kept sitting there thinking things like, “Did they all think we knew about Kareem Abdul-Jabbar disavowing this guy? Was this just supposed to be part of knowing who Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was, in a vague cultural sense?” It’s…there was a lot. I need to keep learning.

Gwendoline Riley, My Phantoms. I picked this up on a whim while the librarian was finding the thing I had actually come for, and it’s a weird little book. It’s about a woman and her elderly, dying mother more or less failing to connect, the mother choosing shallow interactions over personal depth every time. If you know someone who behaves like the mother in this book, as I do, you can see that it is startlingly well-done. That doesn’t always make it a pleasant read.

D. E. Stevenson, The English Air. I would not have read this book if I had not been reassured that it was not a Good Nazi book. It is not. It’s a book written and published during the Second World War, set immediately before it and then in the early days of it, when she had hopes but no certainty of how things would turn out, and it takes the position that if only German young people were exposed to life in England they would see how much better it is than the Nazi system, and a major part of the plot is that a young man has this very opportunity and is indeed converted away from Hitlerism as Stevenson understood it at the time. She didn’t have the full details we had then, but she had some, enough to know that it was Really No Good–and enough to know that there were Germans actually, actively fighting it, not doing its work but then angsting about it in romantic ways. It’s a very strange book because of its context, and in some places a sad one, but also fundamentally hopeful about humans–that given the chance they will absolutely choose to move away from absolutism.

Noel Streatfeild, Circus Shoes. Reread. So there’s this continuum within Streatfeild books between “kids get to learn cool stuff yay” and “stupid kids are shamed and mocked into being worthwhile members of society PS child labor is the greatest,” and this is definitely to the far end of the latter. Stupid kids, why don’t they know the detailed terminology for a highly specialized field they’ve never been exposed to before? Why were they taught useless things like the violin instead of useful things like [checks notes] acrobatics? Why don’t they have a detailed life plan at the ages of 11 and 12, which they will proceed to follow exactly? Why do they hang out with their sibling, literally the only person in the world they know, rather than adhering strictly to gender roles? Ughh they’re the worst for not doing all this stuff. Stupid kids. …so to recap, I will not need to reread this one. I was checking to see whether it was as bad as I remembered. It was. There’s not only all that stuff above (although that’s enough) but also a higher percentage of Streatfeild attempting to write Foreign Person Accents than in any of the other books. She does this very badly. Bleh. One thing that was unexpectedly good was that there were German characters who were…not unmarked, per se, they were just as much national stereotypes as the French and Russian characters, but in this book from the 1930s there was no sense of OH NO GERMANS, just, like, yep, here are some Germans. Balancing that out a bit, some of her practical advice was to become someone’s servant and you’d always have a steady life, also that becoming a horse groom was the height of practicality. In the Thirties. Had she noticed it was the Thirties? because. Gosh. This is like the anti-science fiction, this is the literature of Nothing Will Change Ever.

Sarena Ulibarri, Another Life. Discussed elsewhere.

Mai Der Vang, Yellow Rain. A volume of poetry raging–absolutely raging–justifiably raging–at the ways that the Hmong people’s experience of chemical warfare was covered up, downplayed, and outright lied about. I love how many things poetry is. This is a scream. It’s a good and varied scream.

Zach Weinersmith and Boulet, Bea Wolf. A heavily illustrated modern kids’ retelling of the first part of Beowulf. Alliterative and charming.

Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer, Sorcery and Cecelia, The Grand Tour, and The Mislaid Magician. Rereads. Now it can be told: at 4th Street Fantasy convention this summer, I’m going to be doing a public interview of Pat and Caroline to celebrate the 35th anniversary release of Sorcery and Cecelia. I feel sure it will be a far-ranging conversation, but naturally I wanted to start with a return to the source material…and then I just kept going….

Cathy Yandell, The French Art of Living Well: Finding Joie de Vivre in the Everyday World. Discussed elsewhere.

E. Lily Yu, Jewel Box: Stories. Discussed elsewhere.

1 thought on “Books read, late March

  1. Interesting review of The Hands of the Emperor. I haven’t read it (and am not likely to, based on your comments). The old saw is, “power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely.” This whole area, let’s call it Evil, Inc., has troubled me since I was a child and suffered at its hands. Yes, I agree completely with your assessment; I am also interested (deeply) in the why, and would much prefer a book that reflects those social and personal realities of power. I guess it’s easy enough to get distracted by one’s hopes when writing a story, but…thousands of years of history can’t be ignored, it needs to be dealt with (and it is hard to do so, so one should always accept this burden). Good literature demands some fealty to the real, no matter how imaginative it is, it should not remove its life support and pretend to ambulate. 😉

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