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Books read, early March

David Anderson, Histories of the Hanged: The Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire. I felt like Kenya is too large a country and the Mau Mau Rebellion too large an event in its history for me to be as wholly ignorant as I was, so I set out to remedy some of that with this book. As often happens to me, remedying some of my ignorance left me aware of how much more I don’t know. Still, this is from all I can tell a fairly even-handed book that avoids a lot of the colonialist assumptions that all rebellion against the colonizer must have been irrational and manages to convey what the propaganda was in that direction without endorsing it–but also does not pretend that everyone who has ever rebelled has been a holy saint, nor that they have to be. I don’t recommend this for happy fun-fun times, but if you’d like to know more about the topic, it’ll sure help with that goal.

John W. Baldwin, The Government of Philip Augustus: Foundations of French Royal Power in the Middle Ages. Baldwin is definitely not fanboying Philip Augustus, which is good because neither am I; there were points at which he is using fairly elevated speech to say, “Y’know, buddy, if you hadn’t expelled the Jews from France, you’d have had more options here, my my my, if it isn’t the consequences of your own actions.” But the interesting thing about Philip Augustus was not the person himself but the documentation of his reign. When he left for the Crusades there was quite a lot of writing down of France: How I Runs It By Phil Age 24 (okay, he didn’t actually write it down, his scribes wrote it down), and then there was quite a lot more of What We Did While You Were Gone, so it was…basically he turned on Track Changes for the country of France. And Baldwin poked at that in this book, and I liked that, but if you aren’t particularly interested in twelfth century governmental Track Changes…welp, there sure are other books on this list.

Renan Bernardo, Different Kinds of Defiance. Discussed elsewhere.

Bertrand Bickersteth, The Response of Weeds. Poetry about one person’s Black experience in Alberta, which is sure not a thing I had a surfeit of poetry about and you probably didn’t either.

Winifred Boggs, Sally on the Rocks. This was mostly a light-hearted village satire about a young woman who has “ruined herself” by the standards of the (1915) day (she went and had sex with a man in Italy for a month, not on the page), having made up her mind to settle down and marry for the sake of her fortune only to find it less easy than she thinks to snag a not very appealing man. The up side: she and her rival for his fortune are entirely pleasant to each other rather than getting in the designated cat fights, seeing each other’s virtues immediately; this is also a book that sees and deplores gender-based double standards. The down side: there is some absolutely appalling “go have white babies to maintain the Empire” nonsense in the ending, just jaw-dropping “you didn’t actually say that oh no you did” stuff. Fortunately I watched Blazing Saddles at a formative age so I always have clips from it ready to play in my head in times of need; unfortunately the miniature Cleavon Little in my head who abides with me always had to abide with me particularly on that day.

Samatar Elmi, Portrait of Colossus. Absolutely beautiful poems about being an immigrant to modern Britain. This one I will want to return to, and gosh how nice that it was the next thing to hand after the Boggs. (This is a coincidence, the alphabetical nature of these entries does not usually reflect my reading order.)

Margaret Frazer, The Servant’s Tale. The second in its medieval murder mystery series, with a troop of players traveling through around Christmas time. The festivities were period-appropriate, not Victorianized for the modern reader. The ending was a bit…if it had been the first in the series I would have thought “oh is this what she thinks is a good twist, thanks but nah,” but as I’ve already had a pretty good one I’ll keep going with the series.

Merilee Grindle, In the Shadow of Quetzalcoatl: Zelia Nuttall and the Search for Mexico’s Ancient Civilizations. A long-overdue look at a very interesting scientific figure who bridged eras of anthropology and fought for recognition that was due her.

Kathleen Jennings, Kindling. I’ve followed Jennings’s career pretty closely, so I’d read most of what had already been published here before, but not all, and in any case there’s a lovely new story and also it’s good to have things I previously liked collected in one volume, hooray, hooray.

John Bush Jones, Our Musicals, Ourselves: A Social History of American Musical Theatre. I was doing all right with the early part of the book that was mostly names-dates-places, and then we got up to the part where Jones had really personal opinions about things he’d experienced and I’d experienced, and the wheels came right on off this bus. I found his opinions about Fiddler on the Roof pretty risible and it did not get better from there. It doesn’t help that this was a book from around the turn of the millennium, and events since shed a rather different light on American musical theater; he couldn’t have known where it was all going, nobody could have predicted Hamilton for heaven’s sake, but when you feel someone’s gone off the rails fifty years before that, you can hardly think not predicting Hamilton is the main problem. Not recommended.

Rosalie M. Lin, Daughter of Calamity. Discussed elsewhere.

Clare Mac Cumhaill and Rachael Wiseman, Metaphysical Animals: How Four Women Brought Philosophy Back to Life. I loved this, well written and interesting, about four mid-century women at Oxford looking at the world as it unfolded and thinking that it absolutely had to influence philosophy and…not always finding that the men around them felt the same, and persevering in their own ways despite a university system that was not particularly interested in women in general and women who wanted to think about the horrors of our time in specific. Complicated relationships, still meaningful friendships all the same, more like this please.

Lauren Markham, A Map of Future Ruins: On Borders and Belonging. I have to tell you, I’m sorry, this book is not as good as its title. Just look at that title, what an amazing title. Would it be possible to live up to that title? I think so. This, however, is a fairly ordinary book that interweaves Markham’s search for her own roots in Greece with how Greece and the rest of the world are handling refugees. It’s got some solid interviews and reporting. It is not the transcendent shining thing that title promises. Many of us can benefit from a workmanlike book about the current handling of refugees and won’t mind some musings about personal identity thrown in. Just…set your expectations.

Marianne Moore, Complete Poems. Moore’s line lengths are all off from my own sense of rhythm, and her references are all off from my own sense of reference, so she will never be one of the poets of my heart, but I still liked reading this all the same, and will almost certainly read it again later.

Jaime Lee Moyer, Delia’s Shadow. Reread. What I want to say here is that it is a very strange experience to have a memorial reread of a recently deceased friend’s book when that book is a ghost fantasy full of Tuckerizations of other friends.

Jared Pechaček, The West Passage. Discussed elsewhere.

Sofia Samatar and Kate Zambreno, Tone. This is short, this is very readable, and also I’m not sure it will tell you a lot about tone (in writing, prose tone) if you aren’t already thinking a lot about it on your own. This is a book that is part of a conversation with writers who are already knee-deep in this subject, not Baby’s First Tone Book.

Noel Streatfeild, Grass in Piccadilly. Kindle. The inhabitants of a large house turned into flats in the immediate post-WWII period have to sort their personal lives in the upheaval of that period. Streatfeild is trying something with a German Jewish refugee family that doesn’t entirely work–she was always terrible at writing German accent dialect even when it’s word choice rather than phoneticization–but is clearly entirely well-intentioned, she’s going out of her way to show what a lovely generous person the mother in particular is and that the children are–in the end the whole family is–British, dammit, that German Jewish refugees can by her lights be British. It’s one of those attempts at Philosemitism that go a little off but only in a mildly embarrassing way, not a hateful way. The ending is not as tied up with a bow as it might be, and I think that tying it with a bow would have been cloying but I’m not sure the suggested ending is more satisfying–I think among other things it relies on a concept of childhood resilience that I do not for a moment believe and a certain amount of biological essentialism about motherhood. There is some brief and absolutely gratuitous homophobia at the end. (Are there queer characters throughout? no, they show up to be sneered at in the end. Noel what are you doing stop it.) There is also interesting stuff about what you can and cannot get done in the immediate postwar period and how people of different classes manage to get along. Take from all that what you will.

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