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Books read, early May

Charlie Jane Anders, Promises Stronger Than Darkness. The conclusion of its trilogy, so please don’t start here, they’re all in print, there’s no reason to start here and every reason to have the full effect of the thing. I particularly like what happens with the universal translator, but there are lots of satisfying conclusion-y things going on, lots of people managing to pull up their socks despite quite a lot of trauma from earlier books and do the things that need doing, with glitter and panache and determination.

Erin Bow, Simon Sort of Says. This is a middle grade mainstream novel about a kid who’s come out the other side of the kind of traumatic event that is all too common right now in the US, and would like to be out the other side. He would like to not be that kid. He would like to just be normal. Do we ever get that? We do not. Sometimes what we get instead, with new friends and experiences and Lego and halo-halo is pretty great, though. As a side note, Bow gets the speech patterns of Nebraskans absolutely spot-on in this book. Chef’s kiss. It’s never the point, but it’s also never, ever not perfectly done. I ugly cried in a couple of places. It’s not an easy book just because it’s for younger readers. But it’s worth doing.

Roshani Chokshi, The Last Tale of the Flower Bride. Lots of fairy tale tropes made to resonate here in what does not turn out to be a very fantastical novel but a very pressed-flower sad one, in two points of view.

Agatha Christie, 4:50 From Paddington, A Murder Is Announced, and The ABC Murders. I needed a break from the other things I read, and not reading will not do, so this is what happened. I was not outstandingly in love with any of these, but they’re reasonably charmingly well written, and while I’ve listed them alphabetically, they’re also probably in order of preference. If you want to read an Agatha Christie, gosh, these sure are some.

James R. Farr, Artisans in Europe, 1300-1914. The social structures both of artisan groups internally and of artisans relating to their larger societies. Interesting, right up my alley. Journeymen relating to masters! Religious aspects of the question! Small artisanry and when and how there was a segue into factory work! Yes good.

Meg Howrey, They’re Going to Love You. I absolutely loved the sentences in this book, and I loved the protagonist’s relationship with her work as a choreographer, the place it occupies in her life. I wish there were better ways to signal what a book’s main cultural frame of reference is without sounding snooty, because if you’re not comfortable with using different composers for the piano as characterization, you’re probably not going to love this book as thoroughly as I did, and I don’t mean that as “you are not as smart and amazing as me, you peon,” but it’s hard to not make it sound like that given the hierarchies of art we live with. Sigh. Anyway, there is a substantial portion of misunderstanding plot, so if you have low tolerance for that, this is not your book, and there is also a substantial theme of a young girl growing up with her dad and his partner as gay men in the ’80s in New York, so if you’re going to struggle with a portrayal of grief and the AIDS crisis and how that affected people’s sense of the world and communication, this is not your book either. But I went and added the rest of her stuff to my reading list.

Sabrina Imbler, How Far the Light Reaches: A Life in Ten Sea Creatures. Personal/memoir essays centered around, as the subtitle tells you, sea creatures. I found this delightful, though it is not always, shall we say, perky. If you know someone who is interested in queer memoir, biracial memoir, nerd memoir, sea creatures, and/or the intersection of these things, and who does not insist on relentlessly inspirational reading material, this is really well done and not much like anything else. Or if it is please do tell me, I would absolutely not mind having two.

Balli Kaur Jaswal, Now You See Us. Mostly a novel about the lives of Filipina maids working in Singapore, but the core plot hook is that one of their number is framed for murder of an employer, and the others have to use what resources they have in their current circumstances to free her. Jaswal, from the author’s note, did a lot of research from people in that situation and tried to make sure that her characters’ solution was one that the women who work those jobs could actually access, so this is not a fluffy girl power narrative, but in some ways is more optimistic and respectful of the strength of the people involved.

Katherine Larson, Radial Symmetry. Poetry with a strong sense of nature and grounding in self, very much enjoyed.

Tim Mackintosh-Smith, Arabs: A 3000-Year History of Peoples, Tribes, and Empires. Who exactly is this book talking about: that’s inherently going to be a complicated question, but I felt like Mackintosh-Smith used the complication to never really settle, not to the strength of the actual book he was writing. It was not a history of Islam, fine, good, Arabic peoples started before Islam…but that made it a less ideal book for people who did not know, for example, the rise of Sufism in detail. Is Yemen included in this history? Definitely yes. Also definitely no. How about Iraq? Obviously. Also, obviously not. What about the people who lived very much in the middle of the Arabian peninsula and briefly converted to Judaism just before they converted to Islam? Let us mention their existence and never discuss why or how any of that happened. In short this book served mostly to make me want other books that did a much better job of a million things that it waved at with vague impatience.

Marie O’Regan and Paul Kane, eds., The Other Side of Never. Kindle. Discussed elsewhere.

Andrew Pettegree and Arthur der Weduwen, The Library: A Fragile History. This is one of the kind of books that is attempting to be global but doesn’t quite get there: specifically I was really looking forward to more about the libraries of the Himalayan peoples, which these authors do not seem to know existed. Ope. But as far as the western world they are really detailed and go quite far back and it’s very satisfying, basically as relaxing as an Agatha Christie novel in terms of taking a break from a lot of other things in life.

Seirian Sumner, Endless Forms: The Secret World of Wasps. There are some really interesting things about wasps in here, which is good, that’s what you show up for if you get a book with this title. Sumner is also very defensive about how wasps are just as cool as bees, at least as cool, probably cooler, clinging to a description of bees as “only vegetarian wasps” to the point that it comes up at least six times. Probably more. There is also an extended scene where Sumner wants to serve supper to Aristotle so they can talk about bees and wasps and how Aristotle should have appreciated wasps more (and bees less, presumably). This features Sumner showing off research about what food Aristotle would already have eaten rather than just serving him pho and chocolate like a good host. Sigh. Whatever.

Jacobo Timerman, Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number. A short prison memoir from an Argentinian Jewish journalist who was tortured during the Dirty War. Really detailed and very much a personal perspective, and also very clear on some of the endlessly stupid places Antisemitism can take people.

Marissa van Uden, ed., Strange Libations. Kindle. These flash pieces take the form of recipes. They’re as likely to call for gin as despair, as likely to mix a draught as a spell. Easy to page through, likely to be over before they grow tedious.

Lise Waldek, Julian Droogan, and Catharine Lumby, Feeling Terrified? The Emotions of Online Violent Extremism. Kindle. This is a short monograph about a study of young Australian adults and their attitudes toward online violent extremism they’d personally encountered. It went into the methodology of the study and how they’d attempted to keep it open-ended rather than giving examples that would shape the respondents’ ideas of what things constituted violent extremism and how they ought to respond to it. Some interesting stuff here, went into things like uses for humor and bravado–and also how people who thought they would be preparing themselves to face violence in their real lives volunteered the information that found that they had not actually prepared themselves. The fact that they were Australian was really relevant because they could feel that they were very much at a remove from things like school shootings–this kind of violence could feel impersonal to the people being surveyed in ways that it would not to an American population.

Tess Wilkinson-Ryan, Fool Proof: How Fear of Playing the Sucker Shapes Our Selves and the Social Order–and What We Can Do About It. Interesting, well-written social analysis about how and when people feel that they have gotten bad deals that they “should have known better” about and what they do about those feelings, especially the bad decisions they make about those feelings. Brief, breezy, worth the time.

Kate Zernike, The Exceptions: Nancy Hopkins, MIT, and the Fight for Women in Science. Do you like feeling like screaming and throwing things? Is your blood pressure chronically low? This is a lovely book for you! Especially if you were a young woman studying science in the 1990s and want to see how little things changed from the 1960s, when this book begins, to the 1990s, when it ends, and worry about whether things have changed much to now! Hooray! Seriously, this is interesting and well-researched, but it also covers a lot of the “surely we’ve fixed that already and it’s all a coincidence” nonsense and how incredibly hard it is to dislodge.

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