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Books read, early September

H. W. Brandis, The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace. This is a corrective biography, and I think it goes too far in the corrective/excusing direction. It’s all very well to talk through why Ulysses Grant is excoriated unfairly, and that’s useful. But it gets undercut when you start going on and on about how terrible it must have been for poor Ulysses to be forced to manage slaves. It’s one of the places where the bare facts do speak reasonably well for themselves given the context of the time, without embellishment, and the embellishment made me later call into question how reliable Brandis’s assessment of other questions was. (Notably things like Grant’s drinking and whether it was a problem.) Still mostly worth reading, but it made me roll my eyes in spots.

A. S. Byatt, A Whistling Woman. I made a try at this before I’d read the stuff that came before it and couldn’t care about the characters at all. Now that I’ve read the books before it in its series, it worked quite well and was very immersive, so I think it’s safe to say that it’s not a good starting place. Also I didn’t really care about most of the supporting cast, except the ones we didn’t get to see much of–I felt that Frederica and Leo’s story would have come together perfectly well without the details of the people they were interacting with. Ah well; I didn’t regret reading it.

Vic Gatrell, City of Laughter: Sex and Satire in Eighteenth-Century London. This is a very physically heavy volume, since it’s written in normal amounts of prose with normal numbers of pages (five or six hundred, she said, too lazy to get up and look) but is printed on art paper due to the sheer number of reproductions of images involved. There are all sorts of salacious and politically scandalous images, drawings and woodcuts and all sorts of things. There is an entire chapter on farting and butt humor in the politics of the eighteenth century. It’s very erudite, well-handled, and also somewhat tiresome. A useful window into that time and how things shifted to become the Victorians, but…really, there is only so much to be said about, “I fart in your general direction, [insert political opponent here],” and Gatrell said it fairly thoroughly.

Max Gladstone, Three Parts Dead. Notionally the first in the series but I read it second. Not quite as tight and pacey as Full Fathom Five but still exciting, well-characterized, and well worth the time. Dead gods, magical legal/financial firms, very entertaining.

Adam Hochschild, The Mirror at Midnight: A South African Journey. This is a South African history written in 1990 by a white foreigner. Hochschild is very good and very careful about what that perspective as a white foreigner means for limitations, but those limitations are still there. Also: 1990. That’s before…well, quite a lot really. He was very hopeful about the future of South Africa, but it turns out not quite hopeful enough. Which is in some ways really cool and in some ways really jarring.

Yumi Hotta and Takeshi Obata, Hikaru no Go Volumes 1-3. The first three volumes of a manga about a young Japanese kid possessed by an old Go-playing ghost. Lots of manga-type silliness, lots of hyperdramatics around Go that…don’t really stand up if you’ve played much Go. But still entertaining enough to keep on with a bit longer, so I will.

Laurel Kendall, Shamans, Housewives, and Other Restless Spirits: Women in Korean Ritual Life. Kendall studied the 1980s versions of female ritual practice in a small Korean town, and this is very clearly written about that town. What I’m not so clear on is how much this is regional, and I’d like that context. I’d also like to know how much those practices have shifted and varied over time. As a snapshot of that place and time–and even with some context of what we can’t say that some historians assume we can–it’s extremely valuable. But like a lot of narrowly focused books in fields where it’s hard to find material, it brings up a lot more questions than answers.

Alistair Reynolds, On the Steel Breeze. I am easily purchased, and one of my prices is elephants who are characters as elephants, not as humans in elephant suits. Elephants, people. I mean, this book has other things. This book has interstellar whosits and clones and intergenerational scheming and whatever. BUT ELEPHANTS. I will wait patiently or at least feign patience until there are MORE ELEPHANTS. This book was my answer to everything wrong for several days: “WHATEVER I HAVE ELEPHANTS LEAVE ME ALONE.”

John Sayles, The Anarchists’ Convention. In some ways it seems like it should be heartening that John Sayles was not born able to do an amazing thing like A Moment in the Sun immediately without practice. But if he had been, I would have rolled with it. This was…not that. This was a collection of mediocre 1970s mainstream stories. This was a vast disappointment. There were some moments of keen observation to prove that, yes, it’s that John Sayles, but if I’d read this first, I would never have picked up A Moment in the Sun (WHY AM I NOT REREADING THAT NOW I LOVE THAT BOOK) and that would have been a shame (SO MUCH LOVE). I would have thought, well, stick to movies, John. So…unless you really, really like 1970s mainstream short stories, such that you want most of them, you can probably skip this. Which is good, because it will give you more time for A Moment in the Sun, which is good, because you’ll need it for the reading (and also the wrist strengthening exercises, unless you read it on an e-reader) and also the long emails to me about which parts you like best. It’s okay. I am patient. For this as well as for the elephants.

Jonathan Spence, Emperor of China: Self-Portrait of K’ang-Hsi. This is mostly a translation of the small bits of autobiography we have of K’ang-Hsi, also spelled Kangxi, the longest reigning emperor in Chinese history, late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries western reckoning. What’s really lovely here from an SF writers’ standpoint is the places where he thinks something is obvious to the reader–when he’s talking about sentencing of criminals, for example, or rearing of royal children. The things he feels he has to explain or contradict and the things that go without saying are just beautiful outlines of what his culture is doing. It’s a short book. It’s worth your time.

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