Books read, late March

Chaz Brenchley, Dust-Up At the Crater School, Chapters 13-15. Kindle. This is quite episodic, but the episodes are fun, they’re literally kids having fun in a boarding school setting but also Mars. And on it goes. Don’t start in the middle, there’s literally no reason to.

Tobias Buckell, Necahual. Kindle. The way I report what I read is a little weird, but short stories that are individual ebooks get listed in my booklog as individual ebooks, so here this one is: colonialism on an alien planet, a soldier who learns unexpected things about empire.

C.J. Cherryh, Emergence. The latest Atevi book, the latest chunk of story carved off the giant story that is this series. This is really no longer a set of individual books, it’s ongoing story the way soap opera is ongoing story, except about alien-human politics. I love it and am fond of reading the latest installment even though I don’t usually like serials, and I have friends I gossip with about the characters. I’d love to have more friends like that if you want to join that number, but…it’s a lot of investment, I do admit. And I get frustrated with some threads submerged, but they do come around again, and…more great-grandmother! more Kyo!…okay, okay.

Rupert Christensen, Paris Babylon: The Story of the Paris Commune. You know how I often say “does what it says on the tin”? This spends about 3/4 of the book talking about lead-up to the Paris Commune, doing only sort of what it says on the tin. And I see why, and it’s sort of interesting, but…Paris Commune. Really interesting. Not just in its surrounding and more-imperial bits. Lots of decadence here. I have gotten past the point of thinking that if I learn more about post-Revolutionary French government it will make sense. Now I just keep learning more about the fractal nonsense, and this is another piece of that.

George Eliot, The Lifted Veil. Kindle. This is definitely not the first George Eliot you should read. (Middlemarch, you should read Middlemarch, in fact if you do read Middlemarch there is a serious chance that you will become permanently slightly wistful that you are not reading Middlemarch again AT ANY GIVEN MOMENT OF YOUR LIFE.) This is a very weird little novella that has sort of the…Lydgate family dynamics without the balance of the rest of Middlemarch…plus a weird Victorian run at a speculative element. It fascinates me when the Victorians do that, but not necessarily in a good way, unless you discovered that you loved George Eliot, which…I did when reading…yes…Middlemarch. But I was on a plane and did not want to commit, so…gosh, what an odd novella this is.

Andrea Hairston, Will Do Magic for Small Change. Two-layered historical novel, interesting angles of history and characterization and relationship, related to her other novel Redwood and Wildfire but it’s not necessary to read that one to get this one. Satisfying and fun with poignant parts.

Matthew Kressel, The Meeker and the All-Seeing Eye. Kindle. Another short one in ebook format, a far-far future thing where everyone is learning something, just not necessarily what they thought. (And currently free. -ed)

Kei Miller, The Last Warner Woman. A Jamaican novel about foresight and caregiving and how we tell stories. I liked the beginning of it, but I am really kind of exhausted with books that collapse into violent misogyny even if the tone is not violently misogynist, so…be forewarned, I guess. Sigh.

George O’Connor, Olympians: Hermes: Tales of the Trickster. Discussed elsewhere.

Sofi Oksanen, Norma. Deeply weird book about hair and trafficking and magic. The American cover makes it look very sweet and dreamy, and…Lord, is it not that. It is noir magic with hair salons and a great many of you probably need that weirdness who would not have seen it in the pastels of the cover art. It looks princessy. It is very, very not princessy.

Rafael Rosado and Jorge Aguirre, Monsters Beware!. Discussed elsewhere.

Timothy Snyder, Sketches from a Secret War: A Polish Artist’s Mission to Liberate Soviet Ukraine. This is a bizarre and interesting book. I think one of the things I loved about it was the sense of feeling of interwar Poland it gave. What was it actually like to be in Poland between the two world wars. (“Interwar” is probably a misnomer, because Poland was not really interconflict at any point, at least not emotionally reliably so.) I get very defensive of how historians write about Poland in that period, because some of them act like Poland could have…somehow magically not been on plains between Germany and Russia? And this gets into Poland: trying to deal with Ukraine having some sense of what on earth was going on in Ukraine during the Ukrainian Famine. Which is horrific, and this is a very difficult book. And yet also gonzo-weird, because Poland: they were basically like your group of friends, they had a bunch of mathematicians, some modern artists, a few classically trained musicians but not enough to make an ensemble coherently, a couple of people with horses, and they were like, right, this is who we’ve got, we’ve got to deal with authoritarians now from several angles, who’s gonna do it, I guess we’ll send the Cubist dude in? okay? because it’s not like any of us has commando training or something? And some historians are like, Poles, haha so stupid why did they send a Cubist to try to deal with the authoritarians, hahaha! But look, when you’ve got a hammer, you hammer in the morning, and when you’ve got a Cubist and the Ukrainian Famine, you don’t shrug and say sorry Ukrainians I guess, you try with the bloody Cubist, it’s not like it would have been better if he’d been representational by inclination, and this is that book, in all its very weird and incredibly upsetting glory. (This has been your Marissa Feels Strongly About Interwar Poland Report Of The Day. Tune in later. There will be another. Who knows when. Used bookstores spit these things out for me.)

Jonathan Strahan, ed., Infinity Wars. An anthology of far-future hard SF, at varying degrees of emotional remove, and you can basically map how the story will work for me by how far the emotional remove is.

Some short stories I have liked: early 2018

I have by no means made an exhaustive attempt to keep up on short stories–in fact, quite the opposite, I have several wonderful magazines to catch up on. However, I got to the point of having quite a few stories I have liked, so I wanted to recommend them before the list got overwhelming. More poems than usual in here. Yay.

She Still Loves the Dragon, by Elizabeth Bear, Uncanny
The Mansion of Endless Rooms, by L. Chan, Syntax and Salt
Bondye Bon, Monique Desir, Fiyah Issue 5
Contingency Plans for the Apocalypse, by S. B. Divya, Uncanny
A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies, by Alix E. Harrow, Apex
Object-Oriented, by Arkady Martine, Fireside
More Tomorrow, by Premee Mohamed, Automata Review
Thunderstorm in Glasgow, July 25, 2013, by Amal El-Mohtar, Fireside
Drop Some Amens, by Brandon O’Brien, Uncanny
I Frequently Hear Music in the Very Heart of Noise, by Sarah Pinsker, Uncanny
it me, ur smol, by A. Merc Rustad
Four-Point Affective Calibration, by Bogi Takács, Lightspeed
Unplaces: An Atlas of Nonexistence, by Izzy Wasserstein, Clarkesworld
The Sea Never Says It Loves You, by Fran Wilde, Uncanny

Olympians: Hermes: Tales of the Trickster, by George O’Connor

Review copy provided by First Second Books.

I suppose there’s some kind of outside chance that not every comics artist wants to draw Argus Panoptes. But really, this is one of the characters that has the cool visuals, and O’Connor plays it to the max. Argus is part of the ongoing framing device in this volume, so he has plenty of chance to do a lot of different poses as O’Connor cycles through different aspects of Hermes–his infancy, his son Pan, his assistance with the fight against Typhon.

This is the tenth in a long series of comics about the Greek gods, with recurring style and references, treating the entire family of Olympians as a cast to be worked with and re-deployed. A series without arc plot is a great trick if you can manage to keep reader interest: no one has to have read anything else to enjoy a comic about Hermes if that’s the one they happen to be interested in first, but one volume easily does lead to another. The gods of Egypt make an appearance in this volume, in a weird moment of syncretism that is not entirely to my taste, but it’s an entertaining enough work and a reasonable introduction to the subject matter. My godkids love to page through these, and I don’t feel bad about leaving them around on an end-table when they’re visiting, giving them a quick introduction to Baucis and Philemon before they’re hip-deep in Haydn and need to know what’s up.

Please consider using our link to buy Olympians: Hermes: Tales of the Trickster from Amazon.

Monsters Beware! by Rafael Rosado and Jorge Aguirre

Review copy provided by First Second Books.

Claudette, her brother Gaston, and their pal Marie have been chosen to be their village’s representatives in the Warrior Games. Gaston would rather be making gelato (as indeed who among us would not, in real life), and Marie is more concerned with diplomacy than its failed endgames. But someone has to represent them against all the other kingdoms, and Claudette would really like to win. Really. Really really.

Meanwhile Marie and Gaston are pretty sure that some of the other competitors are not what they seem, and that there are more important things than winning.

And the Warrior Games…keep getting less warlike with every stage of the competition. Except for the unofficial parts, which keep getting more and more alarmingly violent (in cartoon terms of course).

This is a kids’ graphic novel. It’s not a deep one. It’s a lot like an average episode of kids’ TV–not Steven Universe or Gravity Falls or Avatar: the Last Airbender, not one of the really good ones. Just something mildly entertaining I guess. These two authors know how to hit beats that make it story. And yet. And yet.

These are two male authors who are once again doing the thing that the male reviewer says on the front is “the strong female character every book-loving child needs to read about!”…by making sure that she *hates dresses* and *hates girly stuff*. Oh. So that again. Also…this is a “syndicated episode of mediocre kids’ TV” level of consequence-free plot. If you’re looking for emotional heft, maybe look somewhere else.

Don’t get me wrong, there are some reasonably entertaining moments here. But this is pretty standard fare with cute art, not by any stretch groundbreaking work for feminism, fantasy adventure, or really much of anything else. Even fairly little kids will feel cozy and familiar in this plot line, not startled and challenged.

Books read, early March

Penelope Bagieu, Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World. Discussed elsewhere.

Brooke Bolander, The Only Harmless Great Thing. Radiation. Elephants. Anger, rebellion, community. There is a lot in not very much space in this novella. It’s an alternate history, but…perhaps not as far alternate as it could be.

Thekla Clark, Wystan and Chester: A Personal Memoir of W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman. I am deeply fond of Auden, and this is a friend of his writing about their friendship, more or less. The shape of Wystan and Chester’s partnership, and their friendship with Clark and her family, is described lovingly but not inattentively; she does not need her friends to be perfect to love them. And there were moments that made me feel so very fond of one of my favorite poets, and I have always had moments that made me feel so very exasperated by him, so that wasn’t really a surprise. Also this is a very short book–Clark is not trying to do a comprehensive biography, she’s doing what it says on the tin–so there’s really no time to get tired of it before it’s over.

Grace L. Dillon, ed., Walking the Clouds: An Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction. This is the kind of anthology that is substantially excerpts from longer works rather than the kind that is largely stand-alone works, although there are a few of those. So I felt like it gave me ideas for things to pursue and read rather than complete reading experiences. (I am far to the end of the “does not read serials” end of the spectrum; this may not be the same for everyone.) Given how little-promoted indigenous SF is, this still has value. The other caveat I would give is that this was somewhat difficult to read right now given how heavily influenced it is by Sherman Alexie. He is cited/quoted widely in the introductions to other authors’ work; he is treated as the guy for this field, and…that’s not an easy thing right now, and the shift away from it seems like it will be healthy for everybody.

Rachel Hartman, Tess of the Road. A harrowing and somewhat difficult read but well worth it. Deep earth dragons, double standards, family expectations, friendships over time, boots…I feel like most of what I can say about this book will spoil the way it unfolds. It goes well with Seraphina, but it is doing quite different things; it is a companion volume rather than a copy or an attempt to cash in. I was glad of this even when it was hard on me.

Lucas K. Law and Derwin Mak, eds., Where the Stars Rise: Asian Science Fiction and Fantasy. I was particularly glad to see that Law and Mak actually meant it when they said Asian (rather than one area of Asia or only large ethnicities) and that there were writers I had never read before as well as more familiar names I was glad to see in this volume. There’s also a really large range of genres/subgenres here.

Deb Perelman, Smitten Kitchen Every Day. I love Perelman’s blog. This cookbook had me nodding along; I copied out a couple of things, but a lot of it will be more useful to people who are not as instinctive about cooking as I am. Which is fine too.

Marta Randall, Dangerous Games. Kindle. Oh this book. Oh where has this book been all my life? Answer: around, and underpromoted. It has multiple kinds of aliens, it has indictments of respectability politics and the practice of pitting minorities against each other, it has a system where killing other sentients always matters even when you thought you could think of them as faceless dots on a spaceship screen, it has disabled people, old people, and children with agency, it has intergenerational respect and understanding AND its grave difficulties, it has…a lot. It has a lot. This is a sequel, so you’re going to want to read Journey first. Luckily that is possible. Also…this starts slow while she’s setting up the pieces. But DAMN does it come together.

Mariko Tamaki, Lumberjanes: Unicorn Power! This is the first Lumberjanes prose novel–a kids’ book. It is great fun. It is full of exclamation points. The title is not playing around. I love all the Lumberjanes completely and unironically. I love them even more together. I love prose more than I love comics. This is for meeeeee.

Alan Taylor, The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels, and Indian Allies. How much you like this book will depend on which portions of the subtitle set you are most interested in. Taylor is at his strongest when he is considering the American citizen/British subject axis; he does very well with treating the British presence in North America at the time seriously, not just among what eventually became Canadians but along a continuum. However. The coverage of Irish issues was somewhat slight, and Native/First Nations issues were almost completely absent, and they were treated as almost completely without agency when they did appear. So that was far less interesting than I hoped it would be, alas.

Lynne Thomas and Michael Damian Thomas, eds., Uncanny Magazine Issue 20. Kindle. I make a policy of not reviewing things I have stories in. I have a story in this.

Shannon Watters, Kat Leyh, Carey Pietsch, et al, Lumberjanes: Stone Cold and Lumberjanes: A Bird’s Eye View. Okay, I know I said I love prose more than I love comics, but…I will take Lumberjanes stories however I can get them, and this is the main mode of getting them, fine, yes, good. Lots of mythology, lots of adventure, friendship to the max. Sure, yes, on board.

Why, Miss A! You’re Beautiful Without Your Shift In Meaning!

A few months ago, we had to explain to my goddaughter the old trope where the hero takes off the heroine’s glasses and says, “Why, Miss A! You’re beautiful without your glasses!” Because…she has never known a world where she can’t get cute glasses in flattering styles and a wide variety of colors. That’s just how glasses are–and not because her parents are wealthy beyond the dreams of avarice, either. Some of my friends who are struggling a lot for money still browse dozens and hundreds of glasses styles on the internet, able to choose from more on their tight budget than the richest could have dreamed of on theirs 50 years ago–especially the richest children.

My parents tell stories of having one choice of glasses, sometimes one gendered choice–here you go, here are your glasses. Doesn’t flatter your face? Too bad, this is what you get. Glasses. Now you can see. The fashion for girls right now is cat’s eyes. Boys get square blocky ones. For me, it was a little better than that, but not much–and they were not well-fitted to my child’s head, on the assumption that kids were growing, and as a result they were always slipping down my nose, and–in a fairly low-parental-conflict childhood–my mother was always nagging me to push my glasses back up.

Meg Murry’s glasses did that too. In A Wrinkle in Time. It was one of the reasons I bonded with her instantly when I first read the book in grade school: ugh, the glasses thing.

My goddaughter doesn’t have that. Meg’s glasses slipping down her nose are an individual character trait for her, not a bonding moment for every kid with glasses. There is no presumption that obviously everyone would look better without theirs, because, hey, there are so many flattering pairs of glasses, she knows so many people who look great in them. She looks great in hers. And if some jerk ever tries to take her glasses off to tell her she’s beautiful without them, she hasn’t been prepared that that’s the only way this can ever work. The idea of finding someone who thinks she’s pretty great with them is not a massive shock. It’s…life, it’s reasonable, it’s how things are.

The entire meaning of that description has shifted.

So you can’t just put Meg Murry in a pair of glasses and film it that way, assume the modern viewer will get it–in fact, you can assume they won’t. Translation is like that. The past, we say over and over again, is a foreign country. Sometimes the recent past even more so, because we don’t think of what we’re not seeing. We don’t have to explain chamber pots and carriages in the Murry home. Glasses are known technology, aren’t they? We understand glasses, don’t we? Oh.

And then there’s the hair.

This article on Meg’s natural hair in the movie is really good, really interesting. It quotes from the book, and I’m going to repeat the quote: “Meg’s hair had been passable as long as she wore it tidily in plaits. When she went into high school it was cut, and now she and her mother struggled with putting it up, but one side would come out curly and the other straight.”

Pretty straightforward, right?

Well.

A Wrinkle in Time has a 1962 publication date. Before the hippie era. So…I think younger readers mostly don’t understand the implications of women’s hair here. The passive voice is not accidental: when she went into high school it was cut. This is basically a force of nature, in social terms of the time. Wearing her hair in the braids that actually worked for (book) Meg is no longer an option because that is little kid hair. If you find a high school yearbook from the early 1960s, especially in a small town, you are not seeing the option of long hair worn straight or in braids yet. That came later. So what has happened here is that there are requirements of existing in the teen social world, between the kid world and the adult world, and Meg’s hair is failing her at them. Imagine one of the bouffants from a 1962 yearbook, but done poorly. That is what they mean by “up.” It is “done,” it is done with a fair amount of AquaNet or equivalent, it is one of the miserable child faces underneath a failed elaborate coiffure, because an extremely simple hairstyle of whatever length was not one of the options at the time.

Some of this is universal. Hair texture changes at puberty–sometimes daily–and it can feel impossible to work with whatever you got. And figuring out what on earth other people think is stylish and why on earth they think that is even more difficult when “people” means “whoever I am randomly assigned by geography” rather than “someone I have any interests in common with.” But…I think that people who post-date the hippie era–myself included, on some emotional levels–have difficulty conceiving just how many more options there are for What People Can Look Like, what we can do our hair like, what we can do our clothes like, what we can reject or choose for makeup or nails or any other grooming options.

And so…if you showed a modern audience. Especially a modern child audience. The vision of Meg that was in Madeleine L’Engle’s head for Meg. The hair that had “been cut” and “put up,” the failed bouffant. It would be fundamentally not understood. Even if she was surrounded by other ’62 teenagers in a ’62 high school. The reaction, I think, would be, “What happened to her hair? Why did she do that?” Because as modern viewers, we just don’t have the context of the range of bad hair in the past. We know what present teen struggles with hair look like. We have no reason to keep the data set for 1962.

Similarly, if you filmed the fancy dress occasions of the 1920s, exactly as imagined by F. Scott Fitzgerald–the brilliantine on the gentlemen’s hair would overwhelm us as modern viewers. And so on through history. It just…gets adjusted for the modern viewer. Inherently. Because the world is large, history is large, we cannot keep it all in our head. Every movie made from a book is a translation. No matter how faithful to the text it tries to be. It’s still a translation. The more so for a movie that’s more than a year or two from its source text.

So–read the article in the link about how Ava DuVernay decided to translate Meg’s struggles with her hair. It is a translation, a visual translation, or a transformation, but it’s a necessary one even if the movie had decided to do other things than what it did with race (of which I thoroughly approve), because the world has gone on. I haven’t seen this movie yet. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to–I hear that it’s one of the most vertigo-inducing movies made in a very vertigo-inducing recent crop of movies. But I think that this particular choice of visual translation of Meg’s struggles with her hair is a brilliant one. It’s one that has some chance of making sense to a modern audience in a way that a literal rendering of the original just couldn’t. And the minute I hear people talk about filming what’s on the page, I know that they’re missing how books and film work differently as media–much less books and film across time.

Friendly questions for your con conversations

As we started to arrange for our convention memberships for the summer, one of my friends asked me about striking up conversations with strangers at conventions. What sorts of friendly questions can make this easier? friend wanted to know. Do you have a post somewhere? she wanted to know. Please note: this is not meant to dictate conversation for anybody! If you feel comfortable with what you’ve got, by all means, sally forth! But this was a requested post from someone who wanted some ideas, so if that’s also you, here we are.

So. Let’s start with the basic three, that work for people you are just meeting, and they (mostly) work for people you’ve known for twenty years, because you can answer them in any level of depth and detail:
Early con: How was your travel? Alternate: How has it been living here/what do you like about it here?
Middle of the con: Been to any good programming? (This continues through the end but you can segue to:)
Late con: So when are you heading out? How has your con been?

The convention is the basic thing you have in common. If you start with that first, you’re less likely to frustrate people with questions like, “Have you finished a novel?” that have SO MANY ways to go wrong if you don’t have background on the person. So:

Is this your first time at this con?
How did you find out about this con?
Do you go to others? What do you like about them/this one?

Depending on what con it is, the theme may give you clues for a place to start. Is there a specific theme for this year, and do you have a comment on that, one on which you can base questions to appeal to other people’s thoughts? Any comparisons to last year’s theme? Does this convention have the kind of focus where you can ask “what’s your favorite [category thing] lately?” Lately is a pretty broad term–keeping it at “lately” instead of “this month” or even “this year” means that you’re not putting people on the spot who love the focus of the convention but might feel a little overwhelmed about whether they love it exactly as informedly as the most intensely informed person in the room. “Hello, how is your imposter syndrome” is not the question we want, although sometimes it’s unavoidable.

So…sometimes “what was formative for you” or “do you remember an early favorite” can be a good icebreaker question with a new person, because while a lot of people are filled with anxiety about whether they’ve caught up on the latest and greatest, or on enough total from the checklist, what is some of your personal heart, what brought you in and feels best, is something that almost anybody can answer. And can often answer in a way that sparks more conversation, that is not just a single word answer…unless they’re petrified and literally any question is going to bring single word answers.

I don’t know, there’s a bit of a centipede problem here, because I’m trying to help my friend do something that I’ve learned to do fairly naturally. I think what I’m trying to do is give examples of approaches–think about what we already know we have in common from being at the conference, how we can find interesting points of difference and commonality to spark conversation…without making too many assumptions, without leaning on areas I’ve learned are sensitive for several people. When you’re in the audience waiting for a panel or just coming out of it, hopes and fears for the panel and/or things you liked best! Places you’ve had a good meal around the con and what was nice there! Little stories about This One Time At World Fantasy that will make people laugh and say, “oh nooooo” and set them at their ease!

There’s no perfect icebreaker question. But I think it’s important to remember that there isn’t. That a lot of times if you’re at a convention, a place to converse about a topic of mutual interest, and you turn to a stranger and make a reasonable attempt to converse on the topic at hand…sometimes there’s nothing you could have done. And if they appear to be cold and distant, maybe they’re dealing with their own stuff, maybe they’ve just had a major shock of some sort, maybe they’re overloaded from all the thoughts the convention has brought…maybe a thousand different things that having the perfect icebreaker question and the perfect conversational charm and all could not have changed, because it’s not about you at that point. But. You start with a handful of touchstones readily at hand, something brought us here and you can take that literally and ask about Delta Airlines or the other person’s Prius to warm yourself up, or you can dive right into literary influences of adolescent angst, or somewhere in between. It’ll be a collaborative effort. We’ll all get there together.

Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World, by Pénélope Bagieu

Review copy provided by First Second Books.

I’m not entirely sure who the audience for this book was, even though I enjoyed it. It’s a series of brief biographical sketches in graphic novel format–four to seven pages about each woman or women, talking about their accomplishments, their obstacles, their context. The subjects are diverse as to race, religion, milieu.

They are diverse enough, in fact, that their main unifying factor seems to be that Bagieu liked them and found them interesting to draw. Why Margaret Hamilton the actress for pages and Margaret Hamilton the programmer for only one disambiguating panel? Because that’s what Bagieu felt like.

Which: sure, great, it is her book. She’s allowed to turn from Wu Zetian to Temple Grandin if she wants to. But the content includes levels of violence that I think a lot of people who restrict younger readers will want to restrict, in addition to honesty about things like Tove Jansson’s passion for smoking, so I expect this is not a My First Intersectional Feminism For The Single Digit Set. So…inspiration for teens who are feeling battered by the slings and arrows of high school life? A coffee table book for a particular quirky kind of coffee table?

It’s beautifully done, with the personal style and clear sight that Bagieu brought to her biography of Cass Elliot. It’s just a fairly weird object to place in the world. So…recommended to people who like weird objects of this sort, I guess.

Please consider using our link to buy Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World from Amazon.