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Books read, early December

Yu Chen and Regina Kanyu Wang, eds., The Way Spring Arrives and Other Stories: A Collection of Chinese Science Fiction and Fantasy in Translation from a Team of Visionary Female and Nonbinary Creators. Discussed elsewhere.

Susan Cooper, The Dark Is Rising. Reread. I’m fascinated by the ways in which this holds up despite the ways in which I intellectually feel like it somewhat shouldn’t. Specifically the gender roles. It’s as though Cooper internalized that women are basically mums, sisters, and old ladies. The places where women are among the Old Ones, they often fade in and out of even counting, they do things like sitting at each other’s feet, just…being there. She is doing certain myths in the modern world without apparently even thinking of modernizing some aspects of those myths. And yet. And yet Will’s is a vividly syncretist story that I find just as compelling as I did when I was a midsized child. And nothing, after all, has to be perfect in order to be loved. One more thing, though–now that I understand that the south of England gets nothing like proper winter, I see that it’s all there in the book–that they don’t have, for example, snowplows, that the amount of snow I assumed would be required is in no way described, it’s much less than I assumed as a northern child who was familiar with the “and then they had to go out the second story because there was snow over the door” blizzard stories. That is simply not here. This is in part the story of southern England being brought to its knees by a freak ordinary snowstorm. The reader’s 50% is so strange even when I’m the reader.

Danielle Dreilinger, The Secret History of Home Economics: How Trailblazing Women Harnessed the Power of Home and Changed the Way We Live. This book traces a field taken too much for granted, looks into what its focus was assumed to be in different eras and why, what it has to offer and who offered it, who did the work and who got credit and who got forgotten. Dreilinger doesn’t mince words about the places where some figures were racist or others had racist ideas perpetrated upon them, she’s absolutely clear about how sexism shaped this field, but she also is straightforward about the power it has had and can have. And that’s very interesting.

Mike Duncan, Hero of Two Worlds: The Marquis de Lafayette in the Age of Revolution. Duncan is sometimes a clunky writer, and he doesn’t always bother to research the figures who are peripheral to his main quest. (“He writes about John Jay and Gouverneur Morris in the same way!” I said indignantly to a family member on DMs.) But this is still a pretty entertaining biography of someone who saw a lot of interesting history.

Joseph J. Ellis, The Cause: The American Revolution and Its Discontents, 1773-1783. Ellis is attempting to give perspective of what the people involved (both sides) thought they were doing at the time, sorting that out from what we think they were doing now. Not the most outstanding work on its period, but a reasonable place to either start or continue.

Ruth Franklin, Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life. Franklin would like to yeet Jackson’s mother and husband into the sun, and she has extensive documentation for why this would have been a great plan if only we’d been able to get there in time. I think that some of her well-intentioned commentary about contemporary attitudes toward Jackson’s weight may still be triggering to some readers, so heads up there (on the other hand, this biographer is distinctly well-intentioned in that direction, so good), and there’s also a need for serious content warning about sexual assault. And…it’s Shirley Jackson, so be aware that this is not going to be a happy read. But interesting.

Alexandria Hall, Field Music. I picked up this volume of poems because one of them spoke to me in a poetry newsletter I read, and it turned out that was the poem that still spoke to me most out of the entire volume. A lot of this was sort of a ships passing in the night volume for me, poems where I could see what was going on but not quite touch it. Perhaps it will reach you better.

Darcie Little Badger, A Snake Falls to Earth. Compelling. Deceptively simply told and pulled me through the alternating strands of narrative with eager attention to both. I hope she does more in this universe–there’s room but not necessity. (Young adult. Fantasy. Native inspired, own cultural roots.)

Kliph Nesteroff, We Had a Little Real Estate Problem: The Unheralded Story of Native Americans and Comedy. I picked this up on a whim because I was seeing it recommended, and it’s short and interesting. Like a lot of writing about comedy, it’s not itself particularly funny, but that’s all right. I was a bit startled by the amount of connection it had to places and people I know personally, but not in a bad way.

Nnedi Okorafor, Noor. A novella with a wind-storm eye in Africa forming an interesting cultural locus for highly modified characters. Went very quickly.

Mayukh Sen, Taste Makers: Seven Immigrant Women Who Revolutionized Food in America. These profiles are only slightly longer than a long-form magazine profile–it’s a very short book. So while it’s interesting, don’t expect a lot of depth here. On the other hand, even having a start on this topic is lovely and a good idea.

Rebecca Solnit, Orwell’s Roses. I always want to read Solnit right away when I can, and this was no exception. It is literally about some roses planted by George Orwell, and also about various other things sparked by thoughts of them, in the interesting and unconstrained way that she has. I immediately ordered a copy as a Christmas present.

E. Catherine Tobler, Sonya Taaffe, David Gilmore, et al, The Deadlands Issue 7. Kindle. Once again haunting and interesting. Glad this is here.

Sarah Vogel, The Farmer’s Lawyer: The North Dakota Nine and the Fight to Save the Family Farm. I don’t feel like I know enough about the US farm crisis of the 1980s, and this is a start on that. I hope to find more soon. (Recommendations welcome.) Another thing it is, quite unintentionally…look, Sarah Vogel is from where I’m from, this is about my people, but she expects that you, the reader, will not be where we’re from. And so she explains, translates, and even footnotes a lot of cultural stuff that made me laugh or left me speechless by turns to have it so earnestly set forth for outsiders. If that’s an experience you want, well, there it is, even aside from a bunch of farm crisis stuff that will be very enlightening. (I called my mom. “Mor. She footnoted ‘uff da.'” Silence, then: “Well. I suppose you could.”)

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“I hope there is some truth down in my bones”

The light isn’t back yet.

What do you mean these are the rituals we have. We’re doing the right things. We’re baking the bread, we’re singing the songs, we’re lighting the candles, what do you mean the light isn’t back yet. Why don’t we have better rituals. Why don’t we have something that will fix this dark.

And the answer is: because it is December, pals. It is December, and that is not what these rituals are for. We don’t knead saffron into enriched dough and light fires and hold our loved ones close because it will change astronomy. That is literally not what we’re doing here. These are the right things to be doing not because they will alter the fundamental nature of science but because they’re what we’ve got while the inexorable nature of the universe keeps working. This warmth, this goodness, this humanity is what we’ve got that we can control–because the timing of the Solstice is out of our control.

Yes, I’m totally talking about the Solstice, why do you ask? That is definitely what I’m talking about here.

And at the beginning of the day–no, not the end of the day, Santa Lucia is a beginning of the day holiday–at the beginning of the day, it is better to knead the dough that rose really well but for some reason is still a really tough knead. It is better to clear the epic plough ridge from the end of the walk. It is better to mask up in public places. It is better to keep doing the best we can, even knowing that the best we can is not an immediate fix, because immediate fixes are not the only thing we have, comfort and joy and mitigation are also worth having for themselves. And lussekatter. Lussekatter are definitely worth having for themselves.

Happy Santa Lucia Day. Keep trying.














2007: and

2006: — the post that started it all! Lots more about the process and my own personal lussekatt philosophy here!

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Yep. Still precarious.

New essay today in Uncanny! The Precarious Now is about the trials and tribulations of writing near-future SF or contemporary fantasy in a time of rapid social change.

…trials and tribulations, but also practical solutions, I hope. Because on some level we all know this planet keeps on tilting swiftly, the question is what we’re going to do in the meantime.

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The Way Spring Arrives and Other Stories, edited by Yu Chen and Regina Kanyu Wang

Subtitle: A Collection of Chinese Science Fiction and Fantasy in Translation from a Visionary Team of Female and Nonbinary Creators. Review copy provided by the publisher.

Well, this was a complete joy. In addition to having several stories that were individually lovely to read, it was extremely thoughtfully composed in terms of which story preceded which other story and where the essays on translation were seeded through the volume. It’s so satisfying to find an anthology that’s so well-balanced and -assembled.

Usually I consider an anthology a rousing success if I can call out two stories as particular favorites. In this anthology there were four–and with the way it’s assembled, their translators were listed so accessibly beside the authors that it’s easy to credit them here. The anthology started off in beautiful style with “The Stars We Raised,” by Xiu Xinyu, translation by Judy Yi Zhou. Its poignancy set a tone that kept me eager to find out what the other stories would do.

Xia Jia has long been one of my favorite Chinese authors in translation, but I’m not sure she qualifies with her quite short story “What Does the Fox Say” in this volume, because she experimented with writing it in English–in my opinion entirely successfully.

Later in the anthology, “A Brief History of Beinakan Disasters as Told in a Sinitic Language” by Nian Yu, translation by Ru-Ping Chen, and “The Painting” by Chen Qian, translation by Emily Xueni Jin, were stories of types that don’t usually appeal to me but in this case managed to transcend my subgenre preferences, which is high praise indeed. The other stories were interesting and charmingly done as well, but these were my favorites. I also really appreciated the inclusion of the essays about genre, gender, and translation, as I felt they added a lot to this particular volume. Very well done, will be looking for a physical copy as soon as I can get one.

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Books read, late November

John Joseph Adams, ed., Lightspeed Presents Futures and Fantasies. Kindle. Magazines have different approaches to digital swag for conventions. Some give recent issues to try to promote recent stories; some do compilations of older “greatest hits” material. This is the latter, and in that way it’s very successful–lots of really well-received stories from years past here. Adams focuses on stories that work as stories, not on stories that tie in with famous novel series but are basically outtakes, which shows his commitment to the short story form, and I really appreciate that. In another way it’s a little self-defeating, because at the end of every story is not just a list of the other stuff the author has published with Lightspeed (lovely! good!) but also a full–on my Kindle multiple-page–ad for a Lightspeed subscription. Since one can generally read Lightspeed without that much ad content, this seems counterproductive to me, but maybe it’s worked well for them in combination with the good stories.

S. Bear Bergman, Special Topics in Being Human: A Queer and Tender Guide to Things I’ve Learned the Hard Way About Caring for People, Including Myself. This is a comic book general advice book by the author of an advice column. I think it’s best aimed at the young and uncertain, and the art style didn’t really add anything for me, but it was a pleasant enough diversion.

Leslie Brody, Sometimes You Have to Lie: The Life and Times of Louise Fitzhugh, Renegade Author of Harriet the Spy. The thing about Louise Fitzhugh is that she really did not want to be well known or understood by the people around her, and that means that this biography has a lot of flashes of illumination of its supporting cast and…less of Fitzhugh herself. She packed some points of extreme interest into a quite-short life, but there were areas Brody either could not illuminate or didn’t want to–she gestures, for example, at Fitzhugh’s amphetamine abuse but does not clarify its extent in either time or intensity. Is that because she doesn’t know or because it’s not the part of Fitzhugh’s life she finds important? It’s hard to say. But when you stack up enough of those points–why did she break up with that person? what was she doing there? and so on–the biography starts to feel out of focus, distanced. Still an interesting person, never a happy one, always one who wanted to be a little farther away than a biographer stands.

Carolyn Burke, Foursome: Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keeffe, Paul Strand, Rebecca Salsbury. In some ways group biographies of twentieth century figures are so weird after my beloved seventeenth, because there is enough information about the first two of these artists, at least, for several individual biographies, which do exist. Burke is not writing a group biography because that’s all she can piece together, it’s because she feels this is an interesting angle on this group of artists. And it is, somewhat, mostly. I end up glad that there are individual biographies of O’Keeffe that I can read later. Also I wound up mistrusting a biographer who seemed not to have heard, as of the publication of this volume in 2019, of bisexuality. I don’t know whether O’Keeffe and Salsbury had a sexual relationship. Unlike Burke I haven’t gone through all their papers with a fine-toothed comb. But I do know that “they sure were attracted to men” is…basically a separate question and a very silly thing to bring up as a counterpoint, because: bisexuals, they definitely exist, I have even met some myself and can introduce you if you’re civilized about it. This is the sort of point that is just so ridiculous that it makes me distrust the author’s judgment in other areas.

Zachary D. Carter, The Price of Peace: Money, Democracy, and the Life of John Maynard Keynes. The title of this work is somewhat misleading. It looks like a biography, and in many ways it is a biography. I picked this up on–you will be able to tell from other things here and in the next fortnight and probably beyond–a biography kick, not sure whether I wanted a biography of Keynes. Within the first few pages I was utterly sure I did want one, I wanted this one. Except…Carter starts when Keynes was about thirty. And not because he felt that Keynes’s early life was irrelevant to his motivation and personality, either–he kept darting back in odd ways to early influences. And then at the end there was 150 pages of gratuitous Galbraith. It was a very weird book. I enjoyed it, it was just…”let’s just lop of early influences and tack on a mini-bio of the next feller” is not standard biographical form.

P. Djeli Clark, A Master of Djinn. The first full-length novel in this world, and it was worth the wait. This was a delight, ranging through Clark’s well-developed alternate Cairo and giving him the room to really let the characters develop and play. Recommended.

Susan Cooper, Over Sea, Under Stone. Reread. I’m going to be talking about The Dark Is Rising with someone later this month, so I thought I’d start at the beginning this time, with the hints and signs, questing for the Grail without full magic. And I found that it held up pretty well, although the bits of gender attitudes and approvals of colonialism that were baked in made me sigh in spots. The thing that made me mad as a kid that still made me mad as an adult was Merriman’s insistence that the evil vicar was not a real vicar. Even as a grade schooler I jutted my chin out at that, utterly sure that clergy came in wrong ‘uns and that people should know it; it felt at the time as though Cooper put that bit in at the end to soothe sensibilities rather than because it made any sense. I feel that way as an adult too.

Kiran Millwood Hargrave, The Mercies. This was harrowing and beautiful and horrible. It’s about women in a fishing village in northern Norway in the seventeenth century, when a tragedy at sea has taken most of their menfolk, just as the king in far-off Denmark has decided to make an example of witches. They discover strength and weakness in themselves and each other, individually and as a community, and it’s vividly done and sometimes quite hard to read.

Carolyn Holbrook and David Mura, eds., We Are Meant to Rise. Discussed elsewhere.

Ilya Kaminsky, Deaf Republic. I would like to read some D/deaf commentary about this, because I am mostly sure I’m missing some of the things Kaminsky was doing with his fictional republic, its sudden deafness in the face of tyranny, his commentary about disability and community and resistance. But what I see is quite enough to go on. These poems were heartbreaking in spots, amazing.

Elizabeth Kolbert, Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future. An examination of several of the things people might be doing to try to mitigate climate change and other environmental concerns, and also the ways they can go weirdly wrong. A strange little book full of strange technologies and the weirdoes who advocate for them.

Yoon Ha Lee, The Fox’s Tower and Other Tales. Beautifully put together, illustrated little fantasy vignettes, many of them with a rather fairy tale theme but not all.

L.M. Montgomery, Kilmeny of the Orchard. Reread. I remember disliking this novella as a kid. I didn’t have the vocabulary to say that it was because it was sexist, astonishingly ableist, and racist against, of all things, Italian people. (This is from the period when Italian people were dubiously counted as white, so I really do mean “racist.”) So very not recommended–I’m glad to have thought to look at it again so that I can remove it from my shelves and reclaim the space, because this is one of the grossest things I’ve ever read. The protagonist’s mutism is psychological but inherited and innate from birth but can be overcome when she really really has strong enough motivation (violent Italian man threatening the man she loves so that he needs to be verbally warned, but somehow she couldn’t chuck something to get anybody’s attention). Oh, and it didn’t matter that she was disabled not because she was a fellow worthwhile human being but because she was the prettiest. Eyeroll forever, definitely anti-recommended.

Jill Paton Walsh, Debts of Dishonor. A reasonable enough mystery of its time, nothing outstanding but entertaining. Imogen Quy is a nurse at a Cambridge college, giving her all sorts of good skills and opportunities to be a detective. I’m not compelled to read the two in this series I haven’t read yet, but I absolutely would if they were convenient.

Einav Rabinovitch-Fox, Dressed for Freedom: The Fashionable Politics of American Feminism. Discussed elsewhere.

Christina Thompson, Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia. A discussion of how we know what we know about the Polynesian peoples and how they got where they are. I particularly enjoyed the attitudes that led Thompson to title one section something like “why don’t we just ask them and listen to what they say.” What a useful idea, though not the only useful idea. Lots of interesting stuff to know about the migration of humans and the way humans from different cultures learn about each other, as well as about the Polynesian triangle and its peoples.

Shannon Watters, Kat Leyh, Brooklyn Allen, Alexa Bosy, and Kanesha C. Bryant, Lumberjanes: End of Summer. The last volume of the series, and as such…I’m afraid it was a bit anticlimactic for me. There were several elements that the authors clearly wanted to draw back in from previous volumes, but in a way that ended up feeling perfunctory and formulaic for me. I wish this had had its definite ending four or so volumes ago. It wasn’t offensive, it just was not as good as the series peak as far as I was concerned.

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We Are Meant to Rise, by Carolyn Holbrook and David Mura, eds.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

This is a book of poems and essays written by a very diverse selection of Twin Cities-connected people in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder. In less technical terms: this is my neighbors. This is what happens when my neighbors cry out in pain, for justice.

The editors of this volume have done what I would call an outstanding job at getting a truly great cross-section of Twin Cities life. In a world where too many journalists report something as a trend when their next-door neighbor says it and their cousin agrees–where too many editors go back over and over again to their immediate circle of friends to fill a table of contents–this book is something different.

The writers are all ages. All stages of writing experience. Some of them are Native, some immigrants, some in that status in between that describes many to most Americans. Some want to talk about their personal past, some about larger history–some about the present and future. And these editors have given them the space and the freedom to do so. This book is a snapshot of a very particular moment but also has extension into past and future. This is a gift from a greater Minnesota.

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Dressed for Freedom: The Fashionable Politics of American Feminism, by Einav Rabinovitch-Fox

Review copy provided by the publisher.

What a weird book.

There are places where it does an excellent job of focusing on mainstream fashion, where a lot of what I’ve read about feminism and fashion has been focused on radicalism. And that’s really useful–the places where the average woman’s attitudes about each topic interrelate can be interesting and illuminating. Rabinovitch-Fox is fairly good at looking how white middle-class examples percolate into respectability for working-class and/or Black women, too.

However, one of the major limitations of this approach is that it ends up giving the rather strong impression that fashion flows from White women to Black women–because the pattern of “and then Black women picked up this middle-class White trend to gain respectability” does of course only flow one way, but that is not the only thing that happens in fashion, not in general and not in its relationship to feminism. It’s just the focus of this book that makes it look that way.

Further, as often happens with American history writing, the ideas of race are basically limited to Black/White…even when the fashion in question is “kimono”/”Oriental”-style. Rabinovitch-Fox has a chance to discuss what actual Japanese-American women thought of the Western fashion trends that claimed to derive from their own heritage but actually had only a loose relationship to those garments, how those women’s access to those trends differed from White women’s, but that was an opportunity lost here. As were several others–rural women. Cleaners. The generalizations Rabinovitch-Fox falls back on here hold in many cases but sometimes obscure more than they illuminate. If you want to know what middle-class women are buying off the rack as relates to mainstream feminism, this isn’t particularly deep, but it makes a start.

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Books read, early November

Alix E. Harrow, A Spindle Splintered. This novella has all the Sleeping Beauty you never knew you wanted, and all the friendship, and it is so fierce. I gobbled it right up.

Patrick Radden Keefe, Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland. Oof, this was a hard book to read. Keefe does not make the mistake of thinking that there is some perfect side or person in the Troubles, but he also doesn’t make the mistake of thinking that that means that there aren’t some people who did some clearly very horrible things that hurt some people–including some children–very badly. This book centers on a family whose widowed mother was disappeared, and by whom and the fallout to them and the politics around it, and it is brutally hard reading. I’m not sorry I read it, but…brace yourself.

A.K. Larkwood, The Thousand Eyes. Discussed elsewhere.

Freya Marske, A Marvellous Light. I am really bad at preordering books, but I let myself preorder this one, and it came in the middle of a run of bad library books (since mended, don’t worry!), and it was just what I needed. There is secret magic, there is varied Edwardian (or possibly merely Edwardianesque) society, there are motorcars and country homes and sibling alliances and spells done with thread guidance and the prose voice is just where I needed it to be to relax into the story and the characters. Recommended.

Naomi Mitchison, The Fourth Pig. Reread. This is Our Naomi at her most political, in short story forms, and I love her so much. I don’t think I’d start here, I’d start with a novel, but she is so dear, she is so very having a 1930s here and trying to thrash around figuring out how to do it, and for all people talk about the last time we had a ’20s and the current era, and for all I kind of wish we were again…the ’30s, I imprinted on them hard when I was very small and here they are and I understand how they go and yes, this.

Tochi Onyebuchi, Goliath. Discussed elsewhere.

Dana Simpson, Unicorn Famous and Unicorn Playlist. The most recent two volumes of the Phoebe & Her Unicorn comic, tender and funny and loving and good. I relaxed right into these as soon as I had them to read. You can probably start here if you like, there are things that will be a little baffling like the popular girl at school also being popular with goblins, but you’ll get there fast enough, it’s a comic strip, it’s fine.

Lynne Thomas, Michael Thomas, et al, eds., Uncanny Magazine Issue 43. Kindle. I don’t review things I’m in, and I’m in this. But I did read it.

E. Catherine Tobler, Sonya Taaffe, David Gilmore , et al, eds., The Deadlands Issue 4. Kindle. I continue to find this a reliably good read to catch up on, and I particularly continue to be glad that they are running Amanda Downum’s column.

Claire Tomalin, The Invisible Woman: The Story of Charles Dickens and Nelly Ternan. A third of the way into this book, I went and put all the rest of Tomalin’s books on my to-read list, regardless of whether I had a preexisting interest in their subjects. She is having absolutely none of the cult of St. Charles Dickens–as well she should not–and she goes into some thorough detail figuring out what was going on with Ellen Ternan and her family and being a reasonable human being about what options were actually available to her at the time. So very well done. I enjoyed it thoroughly.

Alice Wong, ed., Disability Visibility: First-Person Stories from the Twenty-First Century. I think this set of essays will have something revelatory for everybody. No matter how active you are in the disability community, there will be at least one person’s perspective or details here that will be a moment of epiphany. And they’re all reasonably short, so if you encounter one that’s a perspective you already had in some detail, you can nod along and go on to the next.

Jane Yolen, Grey Heroes: Elder Tales from Around the World. Reread. I hadn’t reread this since I got it as a present twenty years ago, when it was nearly new. I think there are things Jane would do slightly differently now–particular terminology that’s changed currency, or ways that dialect might be used differently twenty years later. But in general it’s a solid collection of folktales that center elder heroes in a variety of contexts, which is something we still don’t see very much of two decades on.