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On Recommendations

Last week on Zoom, my dear friend John Wiswell (read his work! I recommend it!) asked me how I handle book recommendations, with the sheer amount of reading I do. With a data set that large, how do I approach the question? he wanted to know. And I’ve been thinking about how to articulate it ever since.

If you read here regularly, you know that I say at least a little bit about every book I finish. Every book. If I finish it, it gets mentioned in my book notes here twice a month. This started back in the early days of blogging–no seriously, we’re talking more than twenty years ago at this point–when I was trying to post every day, which was the style at the time. And some of what I’m thinking about on any given day is the thing I’m reading, so that was going into my daily blog post. I found it useful to be able to look back and say, here’s which book this was, here’s how I felt about that, but daily blogging was no longer a thing I wanted to do, so I consolidated it. Later I started doing periodic and then year-end posts that were just lists of short stories that I have enjoyed.

With short stories, while I sometimes find things to say about them on twitter other than “this is good,” the list just goes up as a list, rarely any commentary. And the thing is: they’re short stories. They are not a commitment. Click on them, read a few lines, find out if you’re interested! But also know they exist. Obscurity is the greatest enemy of short stories (poems too).

With novels…well, let’s take a recent example that was an eARC so it got reviewed here in advance of the bimonthly book post. Brotherless Night, by V. V. Ganeshananthan. I used all sorts of positive language–“vivid,” “humane,” “nuanced.” I said, “I loved this book so much.” Do I recommend it to you? Well, sure. That is: I said things about it that should help make it clear whether I recommend it to you. Because there are very valid reasons not to choose to read a book about the Sri Lankan Civil War–one of our family member’s family members on the other side of the family personally fled that conflict, for example, and if those people look at it and think, oh, I hope this is beautifully done, I hope it’s a great book, and also I cannot take any more of this, I had too much of it in real life? Valid.

And of course there are less extreme reasons why a book might not be for you! At least one of you regular readers, for example, basically never likes children’s books. Never. No picture books, no MG, no YA, she’s tried it, she keeps trying again at least once a year that I see, she does not like children’s books. I try to give enough information that major predictable categories like that will be clear–that she will not think, oh wow, humor and friendship and the lore of the Indian subcontinent, I definitely should pick up this Aru Shah and the Nectar of Immortality! And then be extremely disappointed for something that is not a flaw in either her or the book, just a mismatch.

So…this ends up leaving me feeling like I don’t want to do “best books of YEAR” posts right now. I could do them with category markings (“best MG,” “best poetry collection,” sure), but most of how I want to talk about books–most of how I want to recommend books–is with a lot of context. And one of the things that does is make the line between “best” and “not really quite there” pretty blurry. So what I try to do instead is to bring things up in context–when somebody says they like historical fiction, for example, I will mention Brotherless Night. (Bullets can’t stop me from mentioning Brotherless Night at this point.) I will talk about Andrea Barrett’s recent collection and how she’s done worldbuilding stuff in historical fiction that is almost analogous to a fantasy world but with actual history. I’ll talk about my surprise at enjoying The Marriage Portrait as much as I did but that in the end I wanted it to go more places than it went–and I’ll reply to what the other people are saying in that conversation, how they feel about historical speculative conceits in this context, how soon “history” starts in their tastes, all of it. I want recommendations to be a conversation, and there are very few contexts in which I don’t want to have that conversation. “Ooh, I’ve thought of a book you might like” is one of my favorite sentences. Even if I don’t, mostly, end up wanting to make a book list at the end of the year and draw a bright line through the murk. I like the murk, is the thing. Having thoughts instead of ratings is another of my favorite things.

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“I think your darkest day should have some light this year”

Friends, I’m tired.

I’m tired of learning valuable life lessons. I’m tired of having my heart warmed. I’m tired of being forcibly given perspective on what’s really important. I. Am. Tired.

You know the feeling that you have when you sit down on an airport bench in the winter? but you’ve packed a whole ton of things, and you know you’re going to have to hoist yourself up, overladen backpack and purse and suitcase and cane and winter gear and the whole bit, and go slog through the line to even get the suitcase checked? and then you’ll still be stuck with the purse and backpack and cane and winter gear and going through security and waiting to use an official airline shoehorn to fit your knees into the tiny seat area without wrapping them around someone else’s spine through the seatback in front of you? I am not doing that literal thing this December. But it is how I feel about brightness and good cheer right now. I am going to get there. But it sure feels like a lot right now.

(But Doctor, I am the great lussekatter blog post Pagliacci.)

When I write a Santa Lucia post now, I know that even if I’m oblique, even if I’m practically opaque, I will remember what was going on that year anyway. Two years ago I wrote about how cold the dough was, about my beloved tinydog coming for extra loves and reassurance, and I remember that so viscerally, even though today’s dough was a normal temperature and my little dog is gone. And I know that no matter what words I write and no matter what happens after this, I will look back at them and think: we already knew Grandma had cancer then, that was the year we first knew.

But the lussekatter still needed to be made. The tired I have right now is not a muscle tired, it’s a bone weariness, an emotional exhaustion, and this is exactly the sort of thing that’s medicine for that. This year the saffron did not grind basically at all. Not a bit of it. Stubborn threads, and I had to work every inch of gold through that dough, every fragment, first streaking red and then shading out to the proper yellow. And you know what? It tasted just the same as if the saffron had behaved itself. The extra work was necessary but effective. So light the candles, friends, even if you have to break three matches and scorch your fingers to get there. Knead the bread, sing the songs. Time to hoist ourselves up again. We’re the ones who’ll do it for each other, and deep down your heart doesn’t live on an airport bench. Your heart is going to get there. Mine too, as long as we can do it together.















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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Brotherless Night, by V. V. Ganeshananthan

Review copy provided by the publisher.

There are so many ways that a novel about a real and recent civil war can go wrong. It can be partisan, showing the saints of one side and the demons of the other; it can be clinical, with a distance better suited to nonfiction. It can be maudlin and sentimental about the joys of the world before the war. It can devolve into swagger about the toughness and bravery of certain people and elide their suffering. Ganeshananthan is writing about the Sri Lankan Civil War, and she threads the needle perfectly, dodging all of these things to give us a vivid, specific, humane novel of a young woman’s family inside a shattering conflict.

Sashi wants to become a doctor–and this is not a tragedy about how war stole that dream for her, it is a thoughtful and nuanced book about someone who keeps pursuing that dream in the face of great difficulties but not to the exclusion of all other things. She has four brothers and a family friend from their block, a young man she feels a strong connection to, and having those five young men with their varying experiences gives Ganeshananthan a chance to portray a diversity of opinion and experience. Some of the young men are frankly described by the protagonist as terrorists. Others are more acted upon than acting, or carve out places to stand apart from the politics. Both author and protagonist are extremely clear about how oppression and war shape people’s choices with no ideal outcomes, no pure hands, but in a beautifully specific way, so that no one character is The Representative Of This Or That but instead all remain fully portrayed, three-dimensionally human characters.

Does one need to content warn past saying “this is about the Sri Lankan Civil War”? I guess the content warning here is: Ganeshananthan is not interested in giving you a sanitized vision of oppression and civil war. She is not interested in looking away. So there is violence, including sexual violence, and loss and fear and anger and all of the things that a book on this subject needs not to be a travesty of itself. What do you think a book about a modern civil war would have in it, yes, it has that. Done well. But it absolutely does.

I loved this book so much. It made me cry four separate times (Sashi’s grandmother’s reaction to a crucial event, oh God that broke me). It made me look up all sorts of things about Sri Lankan history, not because I needed them to understand the book (Ganeshananthan puts everything you need in the text) but because I wanted to know more. I immediately requested her previous book. It is so good, it is so clear and vivid and strongly written and so very, very good. I have been chattering about this book in most conversations I’ve had this week. I told the nurse at my grandmother’s medical appointment about it. If you get monetary gifts or bookstore gift cards this time of year, by all means consider buying it in the new year. It’s overwhelming and wonderful.

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The First Bright Thing, by J. R. Dawson

Review copy provided by the publisher. Also the author is an internet pal.

Sometimes there’s a pitch line for a book that doesn’t match the book in question. This is definitely not one of those times, because the pitch is: “queer magical circus performers from 1926 time travel in an attempt to stop the horrors of the Second World War.” Did you read that and go “oooOOOooh”? Great, you’re the audience, because that’s exactly what The First Bright Thing does. Did you think “not my bag”? Probably not the audience, move along with all goodwill to the next thing.

What else do I want to say about this book: I really liked its representation of a Jewish protagonist who is not what the Gentile world would imagine religious observance looks like, whose Judaism is important to her and is a major tool for how she understands the world around her–in exactly the way it is in life, to varying degrees for varying people.

I also liked the way that the mistakes the characters made about the coming war were very much the mistakes of not knowing what was coming. It’s hard to put oneself in the mindset of someone who doesn’t know exactly what the “big bad thing coming in 10-15 years” is from 1926, but these are not people who are attempting to assassinate Hitler because they have never heard of him. So their attempts to fix the horrors of the Second World War are very much colored by their own fairly recent experiences of the First one, not by our knowledge of what’s to come.

I think I should probably give a content warning: there are people coming out of multiple kinds of abusive relationship here and trying to straighten out their own minds on the wrong things they learned therein. This is well enough done that it will probably be powerful and empowering for some readers who have been there…but others will still be too close. Judge accordingly where you are in this, friends.

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Books read, late November

Margaret A. Burnham, By Hands Now Known: Jim Crow’s Legal Executioners. An examination of the way the legal system was used to enforce Jim Crow and also used to get away from it. Not as depressing as it might have been, still plenty depressing–but in the “you should know this real thing that happened” direction, not in the wallowing direction.

A. R. Capetta and Wade Roush, eds., Tasting Light: Ten Science Fiction Stories to Rewire Your Perceptions. There were some lovely stories by favorites in here, but the discovery for me was Charlotte Nicole Davis’s “Cadence.” I don’t think I knew her work before, and this was charming and well drawn.

Nicole Chung and Matt Ortile, eds., Body Language: Writers on Identity, Physicality, and Making Space for Ourselves. These essays all appeared in Catapult, which was slightly to the detriment of the collection for the simple reason that they were all hitting very similar word counts. (Weird, right? but essay collections really do usually have more length variation than this.) I would have loved the chance to have more iteration, more exploration, on a few of these topics/from a few of these authors. Still a diverse and interesting bunch of work.

David Enrich, Dark Towers: Deutsch Bank, Donald Trump, and an Epic Trail of Destruction. I am really impressed with what Enrich has managed to do with his books lately, using public fascination with the loathsome ex-president to drive interest in larger malfeasance in the financial and legal world. While Donald Trump is a character in this book, he is by no means its main focus–but the horrid shenanigans at Deutsch Bank are worth knowing about even aside from his involvement.

Louise Erdrich, Books and Islands in Ojibwe Country. A slim volume of nonfiction, Erdrich’s personal wanderings, a pleasant read but probably not number one on my Erdrich recommendation list.

John M. Ford, Growing Up Weightless. Discussed elsewhere.

Karen Joy Fowler, Booth. I really resented enjoying this novel. I didn’t want to care about the family of John Wilkes Booth! But Fowler is a really good writer, so she dragged me kicking and screaming into empathy ugh finnnne.

Max Gladstone, Dead Country. Discussed elsewhere.

Pekka Hämäläinen, Indigenous Continent: The Epic Contest for North America. I’ve enjoyed Hämäläinen’s previous work, on the Comanche and Lakota people, and this is a more overarching version of a similar approach. If you’ve read any recent North American Indigenous scholarship, this will almost certainly contain some sections you already know, but synthesized into the larger perspective and told smoothly and well.

Saeed Jones, Alive at the End of the World. The apocalypse, as we all know, is not distributed equally. These poems are a beautiful look at people already in the thick of it. Jones knows–tells the reader–that they will be called seering. This is entirely correct.

Candice Millard, River of the Gods: Genius, Courage, and Betrayal in the Search for the Source of the Nile. I was disappointed in this. It was not a breathless lionization of the white people involved, which: good. But that left it rather flat: here are some annoying people doing something not all that well. I may be wrong, but I had the feeling Millard, who is quite a good writer, was aware of the limitations of her source material and doing the best she could.

Tom Mustill, How to Speak Whale: A Voyage Into the Future of Animal Communication. Sadly this is also a bit of a disappointment if you have been paying attention to animal communication at all. Not only is there not a lot new, but there’s a lot missing. Reasonable amount of firsthand whale encounters, though, so that’s cool.

Orhan Pamuk, My Name Is Red. This historical fiction novel is not just a puzzle novel but an exercise in point of view. Who is the murderer? Why does the tree get to talk to us and what does it have to say? A literary game of the kind I find delightful.

Ann Patchett, These Precious Days. Probably unfair to read other essay collections in close proximity to this one, as she is insightful and pithy and varied and personal–and she’s allowed to be, because she’s Ann Patchett.

Deb Perelman, Smitten Kitchen Keepers. My favorite cooking website, now in its third book form.

Carl Phillips, Pale Colors in a Tall Field and Wild is the Wind. I encountered one of Phillips’s poems elsewhere and grabbed at these from the library while the urge was still fresh. I enjoyed them more for image than for insight but definitely for that.

Emery Robin, The Stars Undying. Do you want Cleopatra in space? because this (first volume in this) series is Cleopatra in space, complete with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony and all their nonsense. It’s all there. Depending on how well you know this era and Shakespeare writing about it, you will even be able to say to yourself, “oh shit, that’s Cinna the Poet in space.” If that will annoy you, skip it, because it is 100% what it is. I’m pretty sure I have several friends whose jam it is. I don’t know whether Arkady started a subgenre of empires-and-memory-themes-in-space but here we are, so…keep ’em coming as long as they’re fun, that’s what I say.

Marcus Sedgwick, She Is Not Invisible. This is a puzzle story about a blind teenager and her very small brother tracking down their missing father halfway across the world from their home. There are some weird things about it, but it’s generally short and interesting, and if you wanted to read something as a memorial act for Sedgwick, who died recently, this is not your worst possible choice.

Lynne M. Thomas, Michael Damian Thomas, et al, eds., Uncanny Magazine Issue 49. Really liked “Rabbit Test” and “The other Side of Mictlan,” but actually enjoyed the whole thing.

Lavie Tidhar, ed., The Best of World SF Vol. 2. This is a behemoth, and Tidhar continues to use the space available to good effect. If you can’t find SF you like in this, you probably don’t much like SF. It’s varied in pretty much every direction you can vary science fiction.