Lauri Anderson, Children of the Kalevala: Contemporary American Finns Relive the Timeless Tales of the Kalevala. This…well, the connections to the Kalevala are less intense than a person might hope, if a person is a Kalevala groupie. On the other hand, there are a few things that are…pretty much on the nose, if you know Yoopers. And if you don’t know Yoopers and would like to, I can’t really come up with a better reference.
David Birmingham, A Concise History of Portugal. Too concise. I thought of leaving my commentary at that, because it amused me, but there really were some interesting bits–the windmill whistles, the women in North Portugal in 1846 revolting two years before the rest of Europe. I’m just glad we have another, less concise history of Portugal sitting around, because they’re not easy to come by, and this one skimmed many of the figures for whom I wanted a history of Portugal in the first place.
A. S. Byatt, Sugar and Other Stories and The Matisse Stories. These are pretty patchy. The last story in the latter volume is tone-deaf on the topic of anorexia and really should be avoided, not just by people who find that topic personally difficult, but by people who are looking for interesting, well-written stories–this is a case where “trigger warning” is less applicable than “not worth being triggered by,” for those who are in that circumstance. Some of the others are differing degrees of charming and interesting, but on the whole Byatt’s stronger short stories are elsewhere.
Jaym Gates and Andrew Liptak, eds., War Stories. A fairly uniform type of war story despite the variations in trappings. Three stand-outs in high quality, in different sections, so that was pleasing: Susan Jane Bigelow’s “The Radio,” Yoon Ha Lee’s “Warhosts,” and Karin Lowachee’s “Enemy States.”
Siri Hustvedt, The Shaking Woman, or A History of My Nerves. I am interested in neurological conditions, and I have seen them interestingly discussed in memoir form (Oliver Sacks, basically). This…is not that. This is very short, is what can be said for it. There are some good sentences in it. Meh. MEH.
Laurie R. King, A Grave Talent. Chaz reminded me that Laurie R. King exists and also that someone (Liza?) gave me a book in her non-Holmes series that I found quite readable lo these many moons ago, so I went to find another from the library. This one is a little sad from this historical vantage, because it’s so carefully working the reader up to being willing to read about a protagonist who is in a lesbian relationship (not gendering the protag’s partner, Lee, for half the book), and from here it’s like, oh, honey, we’re willing! I promise, just tell us about the murder she solves with the brilliant painter at the heart of it, her family life is fine, really. It’ll be interesting to see how much of this kind of easing the reader in King felt needed doing as the series went on, since this type of mystery series is sort of meant to be picked up at random, and yet history was marching on even as she has been writing them.
Ross King, Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling. I do like how Ross King talks about the details of doing things. In this case there are all sorts of bits and pieces about frescoes, what can go wrong with them, what can make them crumble and molder and generally misbehave, short-term and long-, what made for a more prestigious fresco painter, how it all worked. I like that sort of thing very much, and he does it well. He does it so well, in fact, that I went to my library list to go request another of his books, having been reminded of how much I liked this one.
William Manchester, The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, Alone, 1932-1940. Well. There was plenty of Winston Churchill in this, which means plenty of entertaining anecdote, plenty of quip and plenty of perfect zinger, many a line well growled or intoned, many a jaw-dropping upper-class English situation. But I had to put the book down several times not only because it is such a brick that it hurt my neck to read it, but also because William Manchester is such a hideous jerk that he found all sorts of opportunities to make me gasp at how awful, how very very awful he was. And note: this is a bit like the Heinlein bio in that Winston Churchill was not a perfect sweet little angel who could never have offended a soul, and yet his biographer! His biographer could not just leave it at the places where his subject was actually offensive! No no no no! He had to do things like saying staggeringly offensive things about German war widows who were driven to prostitution to survive, repeating the German slander about the Polish cavalry (pop quiz: is it the same to be cornered and slaughtered when you are with your horses as to be so stupid as to think your horses will be great against tanks?), sympathizing with the Russians for of course invading Finland I mean who wouldn’t, and comparing Norway to–I am not kidding–a woman who was available to everyone once she’d been raped. (Note: using a mythological reference for that last comparison does not actually make it less offensive THANK YOU AND GOOD NIGHT.) And as in the Heinlein bio, it is done gratuitously. Certainly, a biography of Churchill of this period will require some sense of what’s going on in the war (or, more broadly, in politics at the time–but really, 1932-1940, politics at the time mostly means the war). But Manchester really does a terrible job of staying focused on Churchill. He wanders off and does a crappy history of this era of WWII instead, complete with tons of unsubstantiated Manchester opinions and random placements of his soapbox. Whenever he returns to Churchill, it’s fascinating and well worth reading, and I expect I will want to read the rest; there’s a reason I stuck with this one through 700 pages of YOU SAID WHAT ABOUT INVADING FINLAND. I just…will want to be well-braced before I take up with any further volume. Uff da. Wow.
George O’Connor, Olympians: Aphrodite, Goddess of Love, Olympians: Athena, Grey-Eyed Goddess, Olympians: Hades, Lord of the Dead, Olympians: Hera, The Goddess and Her Glory, Olympians: Poseidon, Earth-Shaker, and Olympians: Zeus, King of the Gods. Discussed elsewhere.
Luke Pearson, Hilda and the Black Hound. Not quite as good as the giant one, but still a fun children’s book/comic with nifty art and solid relations between the humans and the spirit creatures of their area. Will keep reading this series and recommending to small people of my acquaintance.
Greg Rucka, Lazarus One. Graphic novel. An interesting beginning to a post-apocalyptic setting, but very much only the beginning, so if you want more than set-up, wait around a few more volumes. Already starting to explore loyalty questions, though, so–yeah, it’s a Rucka, says so on the spine.
Alison Sinclair, Breakpoint: Nereis. A lovely short-ish novel of re-contact that has several elements we talk about wanting to see more of–disabled characters with depth and agency, among other major things. I like re-contact novels (lost colony, human divergence, themes like that) and would like to see more of them, particularly from Alison, but others too.
Jonathan Spence, Treason by the Book. An interesting short study of alleged treason in eighteenth century China. One of the things that I felt was worth noting is that the people who were trying to demonstrate their own innocence had very modern concepts of how to go about proving it–so the whole “they didn’t think of it the same way as we do” really doesn’t apply to the entirety of the system, just the people who were doing the prosecuting/persecuting. And I think that whether that’s true relies on a carefully selected value of “we,” because if you just mean modern people, there’s an alarming percentage of “us” who do go with “some jerk mumbled about it, must be true, off with his head.”