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Books read, late November

Jake Bittle, The Great Displacement: Climate Change and the Next American Migration. This was a very strange and somewhat disappointing book. I understand that climate migration is a very large topic and that Bittle needed to draw some constraints on it to make it manageable at book length, but he focused mostly on the kind of natural disaster that anyone even remotely likely to read this book already understands fairly well (and in some cases went into details that were vividly sad but not particularly climatological). He didn’t do a lot with discussing infrastructure challenges to that coming migration, sort of gesturing in the direction of “yep, might be some” and moving on (and in some cases not gesturing sufficiently in that way–some of the Rust Belt cities that have had falling population are not left infrastructurally well-prepared for re-rising population thereby, because the infrastructure is not necessarily maintained, a point that seemingly escaped him). But particularly: a lot of the major challenges ahead due to climate migration are not due to internal migration but to international migration, and he deliberately did not address any of those here, which rather nerfed the entire set of problems. Someone who lives in Florida now has the papers to live in Michigan later, and while the locals in their new town might have a range of attitudes about “newcomers,” it’s absolutely nothing compared to the attitudes people display towards international immigration, no matter how well-motivated. Basically I just need a different and much better book on a broader version of this topic. Or, like, twelve of them.

Ned Blackhawk, The Rediscovery of America: Native Peoples and the Unmaking of US History. Discussed elsewhere.

Ray Bradbury, The Illustrated Man. Reread. I was afraid to reread this, because one of my favorite teachers ever placed it in our hands in seventh grade as her example of how science fiction could be good. I was right to be afraid. These stories are definitely more about the human heart than about equations, certainly, but the human hearts he was most interested in were almost exclusively fearful, angry, and closed–almost more so when it was congratulating itself on being open. I remembered some of the stories vividly but not what they added up to, not the anger and fear they added up to, and it made me so sad.

Rebecca Clarren, The Cost of Free Land: Jews, Lakota, and an American Inheritance. What a disappointment. If you want to do an honest reckoning with how people who have been oppressed can themselves be complicit in oppression, you have to actually be honest about how they were complicit, and at this Clarren utterly fails to the point of being counterproductive because her family ran a bar and bootlegged at the edge of a reservation and she frames this as rebelliously “sticking it to the man” instead of taking a good hard look at the ways white settlers used unfamiliar intoxicants to wreak havoc in Native cultures. (I say this as a person whose ancestors bootlegged in logging camps! Not on the border of a res but yeah, I am familiar with what taking a good hard look at ancestral harms actually looks like here, Clarren! Much easier to handwave about what the government did, much harder to think, oh shit, this completely optional choice of businesses was a choice my specific people made to line their specific pockets–but if you’re setting out to do the no-excuses we-should-have-thought-it-through version, no dodging this one. Mine did it. Hers did it. It hurt real people. One of us is willing to say so. The other wants to posture about rebellion. Unfortunately, I’m not the one who wrote a book.) The other failure mode here is that if you’re going to expect people to take you seriously, you need to be accurate when you’re making claims about which harms are unique (and why it’s important to you that they are unique–why that particular form of grief poker is crucial)–and Clarren utterly fails at that, not only claiming that certain harms happened only to Native people that happened to other PoC in the US as well, but also completely missing on her own ancestral history. If you say that a particular kind of oppression didn’t happen to Jewish people that actually did, you’re going to lose credibility–and you should. It seems like her intentions were good here, but that doesn’t end up counting for a lot. Reconciliation work is important. I wish I could recommend this book as part of the nuanced nature of that work, but I really can’t.

Camille T. Dungy, Soil: The Story of a Black Mother’s Garden. An absolutely delightful piece of local nature writing, from the perspective of a Black mother in Colorado whose work is going on during lockdown–and, one hopes, beyond, but the focus of this book is having a mid-sized kid and garden during lockdown. Dungy’s work is new to me but vivid and assured; I immediately rushed to put more of her books on my list.

Linda Gregerson, Canopy. I really like Gregerson’s poetry but I’m not sure she’s doing any better than any of the rest of us with current events, friends. Place-aware, nature-aware, acute, and…struggling. But in a way I still like to read.

Ariel Kaplan, The Pomegranate Gate. The first fantasy novel by an author whose non-speculative work I devoured, and this did not disappoint. Its take on Jewish mythology was fresh and lovely, its characters were great, I was captivated and definitely want more of this world. Which it looks like I’m going to get! Go team!

Freya Marske, A Power Unbound. I don’t know whether this counts as romantasy or just fantasy with a strong romance component. In any case, it has a strong enough romance component that it’s doing a genre romance trope thing quite deliberately, and I think probably quite well? but it’s a trope I don’t like. So in all the fantasy ways this is very much The Stunning Conclusion Of this trilogy, but for me the romance part is Oh Well That Thing I Guess. This is entirely me and not the writing, and I was still glad to be reading it, it’s just that for the first two in the series it was YAY THIS YAY THIS all the way through. Ah well, no trope is for everyone, and the fantasy is still well-executed–especially the very ending.

Robin McKinley, The Blue Sword. Reread. This was for book club, and we had a lot of good conversation about the weird colonialism of this book, the fact that it was published as children’s in the US and adult in Britain (and the nature of agency in the book touching on each), and all sorts of other things, but for all the things that are very weird about this book, I still love Hari and the way she opens herself to loving Damar.

Foz Meadows, All the Hidden Paths. Discussed elsewhere.

Frederick Law Olmsted, Writings on Landscape, Culture, and Society. What a strange set of things to read. This is a Library of America collection of writings, so it’s a chronological selection of letters, papers, and more public work. Olmsted was not, so far as I can tell, a particularly prolific diarist or personal letter writer–his personal letters seem to represent stopgaps in conversations that were more commonly carried on aloud. There are still flashes of him being a person who can learn but who has to. There is, for example, an early section where he talks about how the Southern slaveholders are kind to their slaves, which he knows because they’re impressively aristocratic people and have told him so; followed a few dozen pages later by the shocked revelation that he looked into it and they’re not. there are all sorts of bits like this. Also there are long sections of “this is what you ought to do with bushes this is what you ought to do with trees HOLY SHIT I HATE HORACE GREELEY WITH THE FIRE OF A THOUSAND SUNS this is what you ought to do with ornamental plants.” So that’s…fun. It’s a very weird thing to read bits of over the course of a few months, with lots of holes just where you’d like to know more, but I’m not sorry I read it.

Sarah Tolmie, The Fourth Island. A novella about despair and the sea and the Aran Isles. It goes for just as long as it needs to and then it stops, and the wind blows through it.

Matt Wallace, Nowhere Special. A children’s book about living out where nobody else wants to be and having to struggle your way up with the odds stacked against you. Not speculative, and some of the pieces of this will strike some of us as all too real–in my case not for my own experience but that of some people I know. There’s abuse here, there’s violence of other sorts, but none of it gratuitous and all of the book extremely life-affirming and hopeful in the long-term. I know some people don’t ever like “problem novels” (that is, books in which kids have to deal with the problems real kids have to deal with), but this is the absolute best of what that kind of book can be, full of heart and care.

Kate Wilhelm, Children of the Wind. Reread. Five novellas. I felt like this was…also very fearful about the future and those who would people it? but in a way that was far less angry than Bradbury, and made me feel tender rather than angry. There’s a lot of worry about where the potential of the human mind is taking us in Wilhelm’s work, and I don’t think it’s well-founded as science speculation, but it makes me want to get her a blanket and some tea rather than roll my eyes and tell her to snap out of it. I always feel like she’s grasping to do better, and to hope that other people think about doing better too, once they’ve read these novellas. (But darlings. Oh my darlings. I am more afraid for the children than of them.)

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