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Books read, late September

Jennifer Ackerman, What an Owl Knows: The New Science of the World’s Most Enigmatic Birds. Oh this was lovely, lots of interesting facts about owls. If you, like me, have moments when natural history is just the most soothing thing you can possibly read, do I have good news for you, there is this book that will tell you several more things about owls. Also it has lots of picutres of different owls. It’s just owls all the way down, here, people.

Victoria Goddard, At the Feet of the Sun. Sometimes when there’s a very long book I think about whether it could have been done at shorter length and the author was just enjoying the longer length. This book meanders and meanders, but I actually don’t think it could have been done shorter, despite the repetition of character arc, despite the set pieces that could be cut, etc., because the meander is the point. Goddard was not trying to write a bijoux little thing that somehow ran away, this was meant to be a long journey, the entire form of the book is a long journey, that’s the book it is. Now, did I like the new fire of the sun better when I thought it was a metaphor, yes, but that’s me. This is the literal story of it, things keep popping up being not metaphors after all, and almost every time I sighed and went “oh well,” because I actually do like metaphors. But it’s clearly done deliberately and oughtn’t to be changed just because of my fondness for metaphor.

Marie Howe, What the Living Do. This series of poems is not only about the loss of her brother, but it is centered around that loss. I found them to be spare, moving, and also have the kind of life associations that grief brings, where you remember random things from your history with the person, distilled in poetic form. It is a good addition to my grief poetry library. (Some of us like companionship in grief. I do.)

Jin Xu, Empire of Silver: A New Monetary History of China. I found this book interesting but frustrating. It was a history of monetary policy rather than money, in a lot of ways. It overexplained some things and then didn’t go into a lot of areas that would have been useful for the whole picture (basically there were no ethnic minorities in China who were acknowledged to have an effect on money…which is a pretty big omission given the effect on the silver supply of the Miao and other people in the hill regions…). It also jumped around in some ways, and in general was less coherently organized than I hoped. I liked having the different perspective than I usually can find on world history, and even on Chinese history, I just…probably expected too much here.

Juhani Karila, Fishing for the Little Pike. Northern Finnish Rural Weird, small-scale mythologies with large effects on the lives of individuals. Lots of small town social dynamics, including with magical creatures. I loved this, and I hope we get more of Karila’s work translated.

L.R. Lam and Elizabeth May, Seven Mercies. Second in a duology, definitely read the first one first, lots of shooty shoot space opera, mostly women characters, many of them prickly and damaged and doing the best they can in a cold hard galaxy with their friends at their back.

Suzannah Lipscomb, The Voices of NĂ®mes: Women, Sex, and Marriage in Reformation Languedoc. Late 16th/early 17th century consistory records give a lot of testimony from women who didn’t have opportunity to testify on their own behalves in as many contexts before, and Lipscomb has gone through that testimony to find out what we can say about the veryday lives of these lower an dmiddle class women. Their insults and reasons for getting into fights are particularly interesting. This is why we read history. Not all of why. But definitely why.

Erin Noteboom, A Knife So Sharp Its Edge Cannot Be Seen. And these poems are sharp too, very sharp about science and its rewards and costs, so lovely, dark sometimes in ways that I love without being–quite exactly?–in the category of grief poetry? but also not entirely not, because Noteboom is willing to look where we sometimes want to look away.

Shelley Parker-Chan, He Who Drowned the World. Another that’s second in a duology, another where you definitely should read the first one first. Almost every content warning in the world here, lots of violence including sexual violence, lots of horrible decision-making but Parker-Chan knows it’s horrible and doesn’t endorse it. I was a little surprised by how explicitly the ending metaphysically endorsed the Ming dynasty, that was…very clear. But it was a really interesting read and I’m glad to have it.

C.L. Polk, Soulstar. Reread. I think this is my favorite of the Kingston Trilogy, definitely worth sticking around for the ending, where there’s consequence piled on consequence but not in a zero-gravity-throwing-lightning-bolt way, in a doing politics that sometimes hurt people we care about accidentally and we have to deal with the fallout way. Everything ramifies in more than one direction, and we just have to keep doing the hard work. Yay. Yay.

Kay Ryan, Synthesizing Gravity. I found these essays so compellingly written, I very much wanted to go back to reading them at all times when I wasn’t reading them, and also in many cases Ryan is either laughably wrong or, more commonly, has decided that a valid personal opinion ought to be applied universally to the writing or reading of poetry. At one point she asks why she couldn’t love Auden, and I do love Auden, and I do not love Kay Ryan, and I stared bemused at the page, because it was very much a–yes, okay, we will just be very different, that’s just how it is. I ended up having her voice in my head as one of the characters frequently played by Joan Cusack at the turn of the millennium, slightly over-enunciating and over-the-top and frequently wrong but very interesting on the way to doing it. (Just don’t go to the AWP if you don’t like conferences, Kay. It doesn’t make other people troglodytes to gather together and discuss the sonnet form. Get on over it. Lordy.)

William Shakespeare, Richard III. Reread, Kindle. I am doing a project, and I wanted to make sure there weren’t any more small touchstones I wanted in it, which there were. Gosh everything is right on its sleeve in this play. DID EVERYBODY CATCH THAT THE CURRENT DYNASTY IS THE CORRECT ONE AND IS IN ITS PLACE RIGHFULLY OKAY GOOD.

Margery Sharp, The [slur redacted] in the Parlor. Kindle. So to get the title out of the way first: this appears to be a pretty clear-cut instance of an early twentieth-century British person using a slur for Romany people to mean any person who fits that stereotype that they made up about Romany people. No person in this book actually is Roma, and I have no indication that Sharp thought for one second about what this kind of usage did to people of this actual ethnic heritage. (For extra fun, the titular character appears from her name to be Welsh while everyone else is very, very solidly–even aggressively–ethnically English!…Sharp is usually much better about spotting shitty things to do and not doing them than this.) So that sucks. Especially because it’s otherwise mostly an interesting novel about family dynamics, about gender dynamics in farm life in the mid-late 19th century, about attempts at undermining or weaponizing decency and how those can fail. Sharp has a good eye for children who are not miniature adults but do have internal lives of their own, one of whom is the narrator here…but you can have that with The Eye of Love and not have to wince every time someone asks you what you’re reading. I have become a Sharp completist somewhere along the way. If you have not, by all means skip this one.

P. G. Wodehouse, Something New. Kindle. This was fluff, and it was fun fluff, it was the good kind of Wodehouse. You’ll mostly read me saying that here because if I start reading and it’s the bad kind of Wodehouse, I stop. Sometimes things are stressful and people disguising themselves as servants and having hijinks in country houses is about what I can deal with, and there was this for one of those days.

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