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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.

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The Thousand Eyes, by A.K. Larkwood

Review copy provided by the publisher. Also the author is a personal friend and shares my agent.

This is the sequel to The Unspoken Name, and it features many of the same characters–Csorwe, Shuthmili, Tal, their friends, families, enemies, gods, worlds–and also some extremely fun new ones.

I loved it, and I am finding it incredibly hard to review.

Here’s the thing: The Thousand Eyes is structurally interesting.

Very few books are particularly structurally interesting in terms of their plots. You can answer questions like, “Who is/are the main character(s)?” without going, “Well, uh, see, there’s…an interesting thing about that.” And it’s not that I think this won’t still be interesting if spoiled. It absolutely will be; I look forward to reading it again. It’s just that…there are so few books where I honestly do not see the plot coming to this degree…that I want to give people the chance to experience that too. As much as possible.

So. There are death gods and snake gods and multiple worlds and passionately dedicated romances and really complicated friendships. There are sky whales and betrayals and things that might actually not be betrayals depending on who you ask. But also still might be. There are people who are not who they thought they were, and there are people who are exactly who they knew they were all along. There may, if I think about it, be the canonical list from The Princess Bride of “fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, true love….”

Would I start here, no, I absolutely would start with The Unspoken Name, because this is the best kind of sequel, it is a sequel full of consequences. But good news, The Unspoken Name is very much in print, you can buy it even as we speak and make yourself ready for The Thousand Eyes and its new characters, some of whom very much wish they were still snakes but are not, some of whom could use just a tiny bit less confidence…and some of whom are just going to carry right on with exactly as much confidence as they have and wait for the universe to catch up. Yes? Good. Highly enjoyable. Hurrah.

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Goliath, by Tochi Onyebuchi

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Riot Baby was intense and wonderful, but Goliath is Onyebuchi’s novel-length debut, and it is…also really intense and really well-done. And really intense. Time this one for when you’re ready for it, friends, because it packs a punch.

The thing about this book is that it does a lot of the same stuff that classic SF does…except that it notices exactly how horrible it would all be and does not gloss over that part. “Earth is an environmentally devastated wasteland, and mostly-white people from mostly-rich countries have fled for space, leaving historically oppressed people behind to deal with their mess. Also lots of people are smoking all the time.” Ya..aaay! If you’ve ever thought about that and thought, wait, that would be terrible for loads of people, then congratulations, Onyebuchi has too, and his book is vivid and humane and human with the weight of it. Same premise, different focus.

It is also one of the first long-form works of science fiction I’ve read that really takes on board the existence of the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s not about the pandemic, but the pandemic is seamlessly folded into the past that these people are struggling unevenly out of. It’s mentioned explicitly in some of the backstory; it joins pollution in the unevenly distributed set of forces making it harder for some to breathe than others.

There are also horses and blueberries and people struggling to relate to each other as best they can and build what community they can in the wreckage of a world that was stacked against that. There is a lot of death, a lot of devastation, a lot of people who don’t even know how they’re hurting each other or how they could stop. But there are people who plant as well as people who destroy here. There are always moments of grace.

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Books read, late October

Charlie Jane Anders, Victories Greater Than Death. If you like space opera with lots of different aliens and friends pulling together to make the thing go, this is for you. Teens figuring out their identity while evil people shoot space guns at them! Okay!

Kate Baer, What Kind of Woman. This is the kind of book of poetry that is attempting to disprove Tolstoy’s maxim about unhappy families, because these poems are very much about the kind of unhappiness that you see in dozens of magazine articles on half the websites on the internet. Are they keenly observed, sure, but they’re keen observations of husbands who wouldn’t dream of cooking or changing a diaper, and I do hope the second wave comes for Baer and her friends soon, as this volume came out last year.

Italo Calvino, Numbers in the Dark. Reread. I have the unfortunate habit of reading things all at once, or at most over a week, and I feel like this would have been improved by reading it one story at a time. Some of them are satire that still has quite a piercing blade, some more localized, and there are moments of racism and other -isms that I would hope we simply would not endure in a contemporary writer. But there are also moments where the mostly flash-length stories are just such perfect little gems.

William Dalrymple, The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire. This is an incredibly depressing book very much because it’s so well done. It chronicles exactly what the subtitle says: here’s how the East India Company went in and pillaged what is now India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh. Here is how they kept wrangling their government contracts so that they ended up with UK government backing for some of their incredibly terrible decisions. Here is the propaganda they spread to try to blame the people they hurt for the hurt inflicted on them. Not that Dalrymple pretends that everyone in South Asia was a perfect angel, but he knows he doesn’t have to, the idea that if anyone in South Asia ever did anything wrong the East India Company was perfectly justified is exactly the kind of propaganda he explodes in detail here.

Victory Hugo, Ninety-Three. If you’ve been thinking that you might want some Victor Hugo but you just do not have the time and energy to commit to one of the really long ones, do I have the recommendation for you! This is Victor Hugo’s short (no, really!) novel of the French Revolution! It’s got Marat and Robespierre and theirs arguing in the middle! It’s got all the Romanticism and none of the long days of your life dedicated to reading it! This is Victor Hugo: The Vacation.

Andri Snær Magnason, LoveStar. If you’ve been missing Kurt Vonnegut and thinking, gosh, if only there was a contemporary Vonnegut, at least as satirical and surreal but with a slightly less complicated relationship with science fiction–oh, and Icelandic–then here you are! This is the book! Apocalyptic, socially critical, ridiculous, all the things you used to get from Vonnegut, now with a new and Nordic twist.

Hieu Minh Nguyen, Not Here. Local poet, writing about being queer, immigrant, fat, in a difficult family, all sorts of things. I am not his main audience. I don’t have to be to see what he’s doing well.

Megan E. O’Keefe, Catalyst Gate. The conclusion of this giant space opera series full of clones and spaceships and varying family relationships and kinds of intelligence. Definitely absolutely do not start here, but if you’ve enjoyed the beginning of this trilogy, you’ll find this a satisfying end.

Mary Roach, Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law. A light-hearted romp through animal encounters with the laws humans attempt to make about bodily harm and property. Lots of interesting trivia, won’t take you long, chatty voice.

DaVaun Sanders, B. Sharise Moore, et al, eds., Fiyah Issue 20. Kindle. Lots of interesting perspectives on artificial intelligence in this theme issue. My favorite element was Renee S. Christopher’s “When I fell apart my mother put me back together,” which I have reread several times since I first read it.

Bill Schutt, Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History. A family member loaned me this book without me asking, and I was initially dubious, figured I’d give it a look and either read it or return it with thanks unread. I was won over by the smooth prose voice and the fact that Schutt has no intention of covering serial killers. He starts with cannibalism in the animal world, talking about under what circumstances which species engage in eating members of their own species. His discussion of humans is particularly interesting when he’s considering under what circumstances human anthropologists are willing to report cannibalism that they have not witnessed and why, and when they are eager to debunk it and why. This is still not for the squeamish but really could be far worse.

Maggie Smith, Goldenrod. Like the Baer volume above, these poems chronicle a troubled (in fact, ending) marriage. Unlike the Baer, Smith seems to be observing a very specific corner of the world, naturally and personally. There are moments of grace throughout as well as moments of grief.

Samanth Subramanian, A Dominant Character: The Radical Science and Restless Politics of J.B.S. Haldane. A fascinating if flawed book. Haldane is a character and a half, and Subramanian is interested in what made him make such large politically-driven mistakes when he had every scientific reason not to. So am I. What I think makes this book less successful is that there is not enough Naomi Mitchison. Okay, but really though: not just because I am a fan of Naomi Mitchison, but because Subramanian seems to want to treat Haldane as a singular being less than a member of a very powerful and well-connected family, and I contend that not only does that deprive us of some of his most interesting interactions (his novelist sister being my personal favorite–and overidentification character–but by no means the only one) but of a great deal of the context that makes other people’s reactions to him make sense. Which is what we want a biography for. So…if I had three or four biographies of Haldane–and heaven knows there’s enough material for them–this would be a fine one to have as just the “why did he screw this stuff up” volume, but as the only one I’ve read and the only one I currently have access to, it’s a bit lacking. (And even so I’d rather have a biography of Mitchison that touches a bit on Haldane. And a pony. Well.)

E. Catherine Tobler, Sonya Taaffe, David Gilmore, et al, eds., The Deadlands Issues 5 and 6. Kindle. What lovely things, what a lovely time to read them, particularly Amanda Downum’s column and particularly Alexis Gunderson’s “All the Open Highways.”

Anne Ursu, The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy. This MG fantasy felt like it was reading something I’d read as a child, but for the first time. Do you know what I mean? Not like Anne had in any way plagiarized, not that kind of familiar. Not repetitive or derivative. But like it fit in with the sort of thing I’d enjoyed as a child, except somehow I had never read it before now. It was the missing one, and now it’s here.

James Wright, Selected Poems. I used to say that I tend to either love or hate poetry, and that’s less true now that I’m reading more poetry, but it is sure true of this volume of James Wright poems, of which I loved some and hated several. There were a few of the “I have keenly observed this thing” poems that took my breath away, and quite a lot of “I’m drinking and wallowing in crapulence and it is the ’60s and/or ’70s” poems for which I have very little patience. Would the balance be different in a collected rather than selected works, I rather doubt it, I think it would just be more so. Ah well.