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Books read, early November

M.A. Carrick, Labyrinth’s Heart. This is what I believe is known as “the triumphant conclusion” to this trilogy. There’s a recap in the front so you don’t have to commit to rereading two giant fantasy novels to get to this third one, but all of Ren’s birds sure are coming home to roost, with betrayals and reveals and confrontations galore. “Carrick” (writing team Brennan and Helms) could do more in this world but not because they left anything for the swim home here, this is an all-out extravaganza of magic and relationships.

Sarah Orne Jewett, Deephaven and Selected Stories and Sketches. Kindle. “Sketches” is a very accurate way to describe this: it’s extremely gentle descriptions of the people and places of the Maine coast in the mid-19th century. There’s nothing that could be accused of being a plot here, and I didn’t really want one, I just wanted to wander around mid-19th century Maine and meet old sailors and fishers and farmers who had strong opinions and funny bonnets.

Ariel (A.E.) Kaplan, Grendel’s Guide to Love and War, We Are the Perfect Girl, and We Regret to Inform You. A friend recommended the last of these, I got it from the library, and I immediately got the other two and read them, one per day three days in a row. Was that because I was stressed and well-written YA was what I needed? Absolutely. But this is well-written YA. I particularly love that Kaplan takes seriously that teenagers have genuine problems, she is not trying to gloss over everything with a hug and a Hallmark lesson. In Grendel’s Guide, for example, Tom Grendel’s dad has seriously bad PTSD, and the kids next door are realistically seriously inconsiderate about it even when they have it explained to them. Some problems teenagers are facing are not “we just needed to be vulnerable and understanding!” Some problems are holy shit problems that do not conveniently go on hold just because you’re under 18! And these books are well-written, funny, tender, not wallowing in woe and angst, and at the same time treat the problems of people under 18 as genuine and worth consideration and respect. So for thumbnails of each, you have: the Beowulf-inflected one, the Cyrano one, and the one that’s about college admissions and honestly is my favorite (even though another one is about Beowulf! I know! but still!). I am waiting for my copy of Kaplan’s fantasy novel. Eagerly.

Maxine Hong Kingston, Hawai’i One Summer and Other Writings. A bunch of essays on various topics, some of which touch on being treated as the Sole Representative in ways that one didn’t ask for, some of which are about parenting or conferences or living somewhere new…not nearly as striking as her early work but interesting.

Maureen McHugh, China Mountain Zhang. Reread. There are things I find fascinating about the construction of this book–the structural placement of its central concern, having to live with oneself wherever one is, at the one-third mark rather than the beginning or the ending, is really unusual, and it’s handled well. I like that it’s a quiet mosaic novel and still remains science fiction. I like how the relationships are not sensationalized. But it front-loads the racial slurs a lot, and while most of them are self-directed by the character, they are not self-directed by the author (that is, McHugh has written a mixed-race person of partial Chinese ancestry using racial slurs for Chinese people about himself and other Chinese people; she is not herself Chinese), and I’m not thrilled with how they’re situated in the context of American Sinophobia even though I’m very sure that’s not McHugh’s intent. So…a lot to appreciate here but proceed with caution/awareness.

Heather Radke, Butts: A Backstory. It was a bit disappointing that this only covered fairly recent (basically late 19th century up to the present) American (more or less, with few exceptions) attitudes towards women’s butts, as this is an area where a broader contrast of times, cultures, and genders might have been really interesting, and I doubt that there’ll be a lot of interest in a similar work with this one recently published. I was interested in her interview with Sir Mix-A-Lot’s ex-girlfriend (the voice of “oh. my. God. Becky…”) for her perspective on the song and phenomenon, but if you pick this up, do so knowing that it’s not a very broad portrait. So to speak. I also wanted the section about drag prosthetics and adjustments for trans women to be much longer and more detailed–glad that a cultural historian focusing on women acknowledged trans women, but it was fairly brief, so go in aware if that’s one of the major reasons you’d pick this up.

Larry Rohter, Into the Amazon: The Life of C├óndido Rondon, Trailblazing Explorer, Scientist, Statesman, and Conservationist. Late 19th/early 20th century Brazil is extremely more complicated than I know about, and Condon’s biography is a great introduction to that complexity. “They did what? They had what?” I found myself asking incredulously as I read, but it was grounded enough in things I did know about that I was never confused, just surprised. Condon, himself mixed race, was very committed to the rights of Indigenous people, and his interactions with them were considered a model for those in that movement for generations to come–not just “he was good for his time” but “oh gosh why didn’t later people do that well,” things that seem obvious now like commitment to de-escalation when encountering a new group in the jungle. Fascinating.

Lev A.C. Rosen, Lavender House and The Bell in the Fog (the latter discussed elsewhere). So I read the second one, The Bell in the Fog, first, and I was enthusiastic enough to go get Lavender House right away and read that. I have to issue a caveat here: some of you may want to just start with The Bell in the Fog and hope for sequels. Because Lavender House starts with our detective, Andy, at his lowest point, kicked off the police force for homosexuality, and he is suicidal. He spends the book investigating a murder among a rich queer family and figuring out what he thinks of the idea of there being queer family at all (it’s the 1950s, this is not intuitive to everybody–sadly I suppose it’s not even intuitive to everybody today) and whether he can figure out a shape of a life for himself at all, whether he might have something to live for. For some of you, the existence of the second book will be enough there: spoiler alert: he does in fact find things to live for. And for some of you, it will be life-affirming to spend a book with someone who is finding that hope–but for others, being in close perspective with a character in that much despair is not going to be what you can deal with, and I want to indicate that content clearly for you: it starts that way on page one, that is the book it is, if you don’t want that book start with book two. It has lovely interesting period details about clothes, music, soap, all sorts of things. I really hope there are more in this series. But I’m glad I can point to the second book for those for whom the first one will be the wrong fit.

Susan Scarlett, Poppies for England. Kindle. This was just lovely in some very weird ways. It shows families adjusting after the Second World War in ways that are neither “let’s just pretend THAT never happened, everything is literally exactly the same hooray” nor “everyone who fought in a war is now abusive due to trauma” but had things like “you have bonded with your buddy from the POW camp and need to get to know your family again.” It also made me cry by valuing a character who very much resembled someone I loved and miss, someone who is not often seen and valued in fiction. People are not flattened into heroes or villains who usually would be in this kind of fiction, it’s so much better than it “had” to be.

Alexis Shotwell, Knowing Otherwise: Race, Gender, and Implicit Understanding. This is not a pop philosophy book meant to be sold to the mass market, it’s a chewy thing that had me making notes on ideas to follow up on. Which was lovely for me, I like having more ideas about implicit understanding, unspoken knowledge, and background information to think about. It is not, however, the version Alexis will give you if she wants to make it the easiest possible on-ramp to her work (she is a friend, so I know she absolutely can do that easy on-ramp).

Dana Simpson, Punk Rock Unicorn and Unicornado. Every so often I catch up on the comic strip adventures of Phoebe and her unicorn friend Marigold Heavenly Nostrils, plus the assorted tiny dragons, goblins, parents, and other magical beings who populate their environs. These are the two most recent collections, they are entirely accessible whether you’ve read the fifteen or so before them, but also we’re getting to the critical mass of “basically infinite amounts of Phoebe and Marigold, hard to remember which one is which” for this series, and that’s totally fair.

Tan Twan Eng, The House of Doors. Too much W. Somerset Maugham, not enough Sun Yat Sen. The prose was lovely, the characterizations were beautifully done, but I expected the politics of mainland China to have much, much more bearing on the eventual resolution of this plot than they did, and was disappointed thereby. I will still read more by this author, but with my expectations adjusted way, way toward the “two humans had emotions” end of the scale that goes from that to “oh gosh several new governments.”

Marissa van Uden, ed., Strange Machines. Kindle. A brief anthology of fictional manuals for fictional dark machinery, science fictional or fantastic or just odd. If you don’t like the one you’re reading, it won’t take long to get to the next one, just a little tasting menu of fiction.

Mariet Westmann, A Worldly Art: The Dutch Republic, 1585-1718. If you know things about Dutch art of this period already, the main thing you will get from this book is the agricultural art. Gosh they painted nice cows. I think it is really underestimated how nice a painting of a cow you can get from the Dutch Golden Age, but if you want a very nice painting of a cow, the Dutch of this era are hard to beat. “Just look at that cow,” I said unironically. “That sure is quite a cow.” And so on. I am hard to please with cows. I come from a dairy farming family. So, you can readily see, did these Dutch artists. They had seen a cow or two, let me tell you. If you don’t know other things about Dutch art of this period, you can learn, and it’s quite nice, lots of glossy pictures of the sorts of things you expect and won’t be sad to have reviewed if you already do know. But even if you do, for example, happen to live with the sort of person who has a lot of stuff about the Dutch Golden Age scattered around underfoot (or shelved neatly, to be fair) and if you do, for example, happen to just pick up books that are around the house because you need reading material, there will be the nice cows that are new. So there’s that.

Kell Woods, After the Forest. Discussed elsewhere.

1 thought on “Books read, early November

  1. I am so happy to see Simpson’s success– I read a lot of her early work when I was in college and have shared Phoebe with younger friends, and it’s all good.

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