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Books read, early February

Benjamin Breen, Tripping on Utopia: Margaret Mead, the Cold War, and the Troubled Birth of Psychedelic Science. This was really interesting but there were places where I feel like it suffered from Breen wanting Mead to be able to have accomplished things that were beyond the scope of her power. I think he made an incredibly clear case that Timothy Leary was a toxic force in the study of psychedelics on the human consciousness–that seems nearly irrefutable–and his points about the context of what we now call psychedelia before the 1960s were very interesting. But when he leaned into the idea that Mead could have, by championing therapeutic use of psychedelics, changed the course of attitudes, he seems to be ignoring her context as a woman, a mother, and a closeted bisexual person–and I think ignoring the people who tried to change those attitudes and were ignored in multiple directions. It’s a tempting counterfactual, what if Margaret Mead instead of Timothy Leary. It just…doesn’t hold up for more than a short story. Still, gosh the early 20th was full of people mucking around with each other’s brains, wow.

Anne de Courcy, Chanel’s Riviera: Glamour, Decadence, and Survival in Peace and War, 1930-1944 and Magnificent Rebel: Nancy Cunard in Jazz Age Paris. I really like de Courcy’s work in general, and I went and got these two from the library because they were the two the library had that I hadn’t read yet. They were disappointing. I think there is an important line a biographer walks where enthusiasm for the subject cannot be permitted to cross the line into making excuses for the subject, and de Courcy repeatedly crosses it here. This is particularly clear because I picked up these books due to enthusiasm for the biographer rather than the subject. She claims that Chanel’s Riviera is not a biography of Chanel but of this particular snapshot of place and time, which means several things in practice: one, it means that the balance of how much the book is about Chanel and how much it’s about other people is always very weird, and two, it means that there is a lot of telling what’s interesting about Chanel that de Courcy doesn’t feel she has to do. The problem is that I…don’t actually already agree that Chanel was amazing and wonderful and extraordinary. So that when de Courcy falls back on these adjectives, which she did in basically every sentence in which she had to refer to Chanel’s Antisemitism, I have not already been convinced that her style of dress was uniquely worth it. Some of de Courcy’s arguments were just jaw-dropping, like: well, she collaborated, but you see she was used to having a man in her bed. Oh okay. Oh sure well then. It was…not her most coherent work. Magnificent Rebel was not a lot better, arguing for the importance of some relationships over others not with particular focus on Cunard’s life as a whole but more because de Courcy felt like it–sometimes with Paris as the heart of the argument, often not. She wanted to focus on how Cunard promoted the work of Black writers but often made excuses for places where Cunard actively abused those Black writers on a professional and a personal level. There were interesting points here but far too much handwaving for my taste. Earlier work better. Sigh.

Camille T. Dungy, Trophic Cascade. I seem to be working my way backwards through Dungy’s life and oeuvre. The child I first met as an opinionated tween in Soil is a fetus and infant in these poems, and this combined with change in genre is fascinating. Seeing what she was talking about people asking her about writing about nature and race and parenthood, having that back story going in, doesn’t take away a single bit of its power.

Davinia Evans, Shadow Baron. This is in some sense a reread, but the version I’d read before was the manuscript form, and this is the finished version, and it did not disappoint. Lots of ramification from the first book, more magic, more adventure, the world going even deeper, so much fun, recommended.

Marco Fontani, Mariagrazia Costa, and Mary Virginia Orna, The Lost Elements: The Periodic Table’s Shadow Side. These authors very earnestly wanted to be the next Primo Levi, writing a book about the things that were mistakenly identified as elements. Their writing is not limpid and lovely, it is workhorse prose–and the history of mistakenly thinking that you’ve isolated a new element is less exciting than the history of correctly thinking you have. Only a few of these stories were the wacky errors of science tales I was hoping for. Mostly it was, yes, here’s another time someone was wrong, yes, and another. Also there was a lot of weirdly earnest biographical information about who loved their spouse or child and what they died of, which is in some ways sweet but not particularly vivid. Read this if you’re interested in the information it contains, not if you’re interested in reading per se; it would be just as nice beamed directly into your brain.

E.M. Forster, Where Angels Fear to Tread. Kindle. This is Forster’s first book, and it has some really lovely parts, well-observed and sometimes witty and sometimes affecting. If you have a friend who loves Italy to the point of viewing it as the solution to all mortal ills, you may laugh out loud at several parts. However. The very ending of this book, and this is a spoiler and I am not sorry for it, the book is over a hundred years old and this is intense, features one of the most gratuitous infant deaths I have ever encountered in fiction. “Yeah, and then this asshole screwed up and the baby died.” It was heavy-handed, it was awful, and I want to warn about it in the strongest of terms, because in some ways Forster is clear about its effects and then in other ways I’m like…no…I don’t think that’s all, there, Morgan. I cannot say it was worth it. No. Really not.

Nicola Griffith, Spear. Reread. Two different book clubs I’m in or near were reading this, and it was no hardship whatsoever to sink back into Peredur’s story, rich as it is in its own angles and deeds and decisions.

Ursula K. Le Guin, The Lathe of Heaven. Reread. Also a book club choice, and I hoped I would like it better than the last time I read it, which was my senior year of high school. I think I respected it more, which is not really the same thing; Le Guin wanted to tell a story where not-doing is the correct choice for good reasons, and I get that, but there were lots of places where I felt like the results still jarred. I would also note that it’s good that she had a chance to grow out of some of these choices–explicitly treating whiteness as the racially unmarked case in ways that I feel sure she would not and did not do later in her career, for example. This is going to remain not my favorite Le Guin, and that’s okay.

Premee Mohamed, The Butcher of the Forest. Discussed elsewhere.

Marieke Nijkamp and Sylvia Bi, Ink Girls. A middle-grade comic of defying censorship and a community coming together to demand justice, in case you know anybody who’s feeling like something like that right now.

Saghïmbay Orozbaq uulu, The Memorial Feast for Kökötöy Khan: A Kirghiz Epic Poem in the Manas Tradition. One of my friends heard I was on an epic kick and sent this one along for comparison, and I’m grateful, because some of it is very similar to other epics I’ve read–comparing this Muslim epic to Roland in terms of how the religious out-group is treated was fascinating, so many parallels–and some of it is very, very different. The scene of how the wrestling champion gets into his tight pants is clearly done in formula terms, for example, and yet is not one I’ve seen elsewhere. There is significantly explicit sexual content here as well as quite a lot of violence, so if you’re thinking “cultural epic” means “read it to the wee kiddies for bedtime,” well, make sure you share premodern nomadic standards for the wee kiddies’ bedtime before you do.

S. E. Porter, Projections. Discussed elsewhere.

Melissa Scott, Five-Twelfths of Heaven, Silence in Solitude, and The Empress of Earth. Rereads. This is a trilogy, and I read it in an omnibus volume. It’s got a plucky young pilot overcoming sexism to fly spaceships and later join the previously all-male magi and find the lost road to Earth. I found it readable while I was reading it, but once I was away from each volume some of the emotional motivations seemed very opaque: Silence has now fallen in love with her convenience spouses? Why? One of them does not seem very lovable to me, nor does she seem to have had the chance to have found lovable traits not shown on the page. And their choice of habitation for the very ending…seems like it would make all of them miserable, absolutely miserable, and seemed completely unmotivated. So it was a case of enjoying the experience and then turning it over and not really enjoying the aftermath as much, not because anything became offensive so much as because the length constraints of the time didn’t permit Scott the space to go into as much of the characters’ psychology as I think would have been beneficial–because these were from the era of very short space opera.

P. G. Wodehouse, The Little Nugget. Kindle. This is entirely forgettable Wodehouse. The title refers to an unpleasant spoiled rich boy, assumptions about whom are entirely period, the protagonist agrees to kidnap him for reasons that never hold up very well, and in general if you are on an airplane and this is on your e-reader, fine, but I see no reason to seek it out.

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