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Books read, late July

Alison Bashford, The Huxleys: An Intimate History of Evolution. This did not do what I hoped. It was organized conceptually. Several of the people I have said this to have gasped, “Oh no!” but it isn’t as bad as all that, but it isn’t amazing either. It made the ending less predictable than a chronological biography, but on the other hand there are just great heaps of what I would find interesting missing. I’m reading another book that has the edges of Julian in it already, absolutely accidentally, and already I’m muttering, “why wasn’t there any of this in the other thing.” Not enough Huxley per unit Huxley is not a complaint I expected to have here, and yet here we are. There’s absolutely nothing like the bit in the Haldane bio where Naomi Mitchison bit him. Surely with this many Huxleys somebody had to at least kick somebody sharply. I would have. Maybe it was even Naomi Mitchison, she had several chances. Well, someone else will have to tell me, it’s not apparently Alison Bashford’s job, she was doing something different.

Stephanie Burgis, Claws and Contrivances. Kindle. The second in a series, but it stands alone–frothy fun that has a little bite to it as animal welfare is at the heart of the plots. The animals in question are dragons, and the title format should tell you what era they’re drawing on. Just what I needed for an adventurous escape in a stressful time.

Jackson Crawford, trans. etc., The Wanderer’s Hávamál. I really like this edition of this very old Norse poem: side by side original and translation, followed by lots of translation notes and then a much more loosely done “cowboy” dialect version that was a tribute to the translator’s grandfather and made me smile–I know the Mountain West US dialect he was using pretty well, and he did a good job of it.

Jan de Vries, The Dutch Rural Economy in the Golden Age, 1500-1700. Lots of tables and facts about what was going on in those Dutch towns, some interesting bits but mostly I read this because it was here and I was waiting on my birthday, probably only interesting if you are really interested in the topic.

Edmund de Waal, Letters to Camondo. Like me, like Auden, like several of my friends, de Waal is in the club of people who write letters to friends who have been dead since before they were born. In this case he became interested in a neighbor of his family and how that life had unfolded for a Jewish person in that part of Paris in the early 20th century. It is not a story with a happy ending, as you can expect from the first half of the 20th, but de Waal notices all the good and bad his absent “correspondent” has along the way, and it’s poignant, lovely, and brief.

Samuel Delany, Empire Star. Reread. I read this for a book club, and I’m afraid I won’t have much to say in the book club. There are things Delany wanted to do here with time and mentality that were fine but not particularly exciting to me at this point in the genre. I’m not sorry I read it but I didn’t engage with it strongly either.

Rebecca Fraimow, Iron Children. Kindle. A novella that explored the sense of grinding permanence only to explode it, looking into questions of loyalty and personal transformation…with mechas and survival in the snow. I tore right through it, lovely stuff.

Margaret Frazer, The Novice’s Tale. A nice little medieval mystery from the reign of Henry VI, who ever bothers with Henry VI, well done Frazer for even remembering him. It’s the first in a series, so it looks like I will have several ahead of me to enjoy when I want nice little mysteries.

Carlo Ginzburg, The Night Battles: Witchcraft and Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. My favorite part of this wasn’t actually the main thread of it, although that was fascinating–it was the parallel case of the werewolf. This was “sure, we’re witches, but we’re good witches, and we fight crime in our dreams”: oh bless, well done, neighbors. But there was also a person on trial for being werewolf and he gave the judges an absolute epic hecking about where they would be without the werewolves going down and harrowing hell for them. This period was a wild ride and I love them for it. Early moderns, bless. Trying to sort out worldview, bless.

Sophus Helle, trans., The Complete Poems of Enheduana, the World’s First Author. Translations from the Sumerian, wow, and then lots of essays and notes about what we know about this poet (or poets) and how poetry and its composition was regarded and who this poet’s contemporaries were, really interesting stuff.

Beth Lincoln, The Swifts: A Dictionary of Scoundrels. A Wacky Family Reunion novel and also a MG mystery novel and also an exploration of how much one’s family can predetermine one’s identity vs. how much one gets to choose one’s own. The trans characters’ identities are handled with a light and deft touch in this context. Generally an interesting read and certainly as fast as you would expect for being MG. Walks right on that line of “how much murder can be in a MG mystery really.”

Premee Mohamed, No One Will Come Back for Us and Other Stories. Premee, on the other hand, has no limits of how much murder. A lot of this is overtly horror, in the vein of cosmic/existential/personal rather than chompy chomp horror, and it’s beautifully done, and also maybe plan to read it a bit at a time so as not to be overwhelmed by the aaaaaaah because it’s beautifully done. Some previously known favorites here and some new to me.

Susan Palwick, Shelter. Reread. I don’t feel like this aged well, but then I look again and some of the problems were problems I feel like Palwick could have seen in 2007 as well, they just…got worse instead of better with time. If you want to talk about failures of compassion in modern society–and it’s explicitly a near-future American setting–I feel like making up a fake environmentalist religion as central to the near-future society and having those people fail in their community and compassion is…passing quite a lot of buck. There were also some pretty serious issues with the portrayal of mental health and its treatment, and yes, some of that was that Palwick was trying to point at lack of compassion, but some of it was Palwick herself conflating symptoms and rushing past potential treatments with a handwave in order to get to the desired science fictional result. This was a book where choice of point of view was a serious problem, because there were two main points of view, both of whom were almost completely isolated–which was deliberate, it was a statement, but it meant that when they held horrifying views and the people contradicting them were also pretty terrible, there was no ground to stand on, you were just stuck in the horrible with nowhere else to go. I don’t intend to return to this; the parts I remembered fondly turned out to be a tiny fraction of the whole. I read it for an online book club, and other people found other things upsettingly handled as well, including adoption.

Pierre Riche, The Carolingians: A Family Who Forged Europe. More Carolingians, yes, but also more about their aftermath and periphery, which I enjoy.

Margery Sharp, The Eye of Love. Kindle. An adult book about an artistic little orphan girl who is about as far from Anne of Green Gables as you can imagine. I love them both. Martha is a stolid, laconic little soul who doesn’t give a rip for the neighbors’ opinions, who almost entirely wants to be left alone to draw, and who only really wants to draw things that matter to her. She does not gush. She occasionally, with distaste, uses people’s preconceptions about small girls, but it is not something she enjoys doing and only does it out of dire necessity. Meanwhile there is another plot going on, about her aunt’s domestic situation and whether it will resolve satisfactorily, and the theme ties in with Martha as a young artist seeing the world her own way as per the title. There are two more in this series, which is good because it only got up to about the first third of a coming of age young artist novel while doing the whole plot about Martha’s aunt, but also I am now really curious about what other plots will go alongside Martha’s.

Noel Streatfeild, Aunt Clara and It Pays to Be Good. Kindle, both. What a fascinating pair of her adult novels to read at once. They’re both character studies, extremely well-done character studies. The former is an absolutely hilarious portrait of an extremely nice unfashionable old lady who inherits disreputable property and responsibilities and goes around taking it in her stride and doing the absolute best she can with it while her supposedly respectable relations have fits and try to keep her from realizing what it all is. It’s lovely and also makes some pretty good points about how goodness is not stupidity, thank you very much. The latter, on the other hand, is also talking about respectability, but in its case superficial respectability is rewarded in just the way other novels of its time (and especially the time preceding it) believes that it should be. It is one of the most appalling tragedies you can ask to encounter. Both just beautifully observed.

Amy Wilson, Shadows of Winterspell. A MG fantasy with kids trying to figure out how to make the world better on the limited information given them by adults, but their world has ghosts and all manner of fey creatures. A fun read.

Serge Zenkovsky, ed., Medieval Russia’s Epics, Chronicles, and Tales. Primary sources in translation, so this varied highly from “oh wow this is fun actually” to “how appalling,” as one might expect from several centuries and varied topics and genres. One of the notes I would make on this is that it was published in the late 1960s, and its editorial staff/annotator saw no particular reason to be careful about the distinctions among Kievan Rus, Muscov, Russia, and other polities. I don’t entirely blame them for this; I don’t expect that a Russian writer of the time would have been exacting about Mercian vs. English vs. British vs. Scottish–heck, some American writers aren’t–but there are times when things are discussed or translated with a rather sloppy hand in that regard that’s a bit wince-worthy in the current political climate, and worth keeping an eye on when you’re thinking about what’s actually being claimed about the history of the region (as in, not what certain parties would love it if you thought).

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