Books read, early February

Douglas Brinkley, The Quiet World: Saving Alaska’s Wilderness Kingdom, 1879-1960. This is a large, magisterial volume on nature and its protection. Brinkley is a modern enough writer to make serious attempts at including women in his assessment of what happened, and with good reason–several women were seriously important in this fight in divergent ways. He didn’t do quite as well with Native people; Native Alaskan groups are quite often treated as monoliths, with no particular individuals having any particular opinions or actions or influence. So–not a good place to stop learning about this topic, but a pretty good place to start.

A.S. Byatt, The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye. Reread. I remembered loving these stories the first time I read them, and I did the second time as well. Two are excerpts from Possession, which I had not read the first time I read this volume; two are tiny fairy tales in the same vein, and the last is a novella of great depth and interest, a middle-aged woman’s relationship with a power of fire and air–a fantasy story rather than a fairy tale proper. I noticed Byatt dealing with the Blitz and the evacuation of London children again–she did this in one of the stories of Sugar and Other Stories, I think?–and that felt like a very familiar thing for a writer to be doing, returning again and again to myth to deal with the hard things in one’s past. Highly recommended.

Tracy Chevalier, Remarkable Creatures. I really shouldn’t look a gift novel about Mary Anning in the mouth. But…look, there are not that many working-class heroines of science. Mary Anning, fossil hunter, is very thoroughly one of them. And Chevalier…gives her a fictional older, middle-class woman for a mentor, and that relationship is the heart of the book. I am usually really happy with mentorship relationships at the heart of a book, but in this case it felt like the same thing that so often happens with scientists who are outside the stereotype of who can become scientists: their prowess is attributed to other people. Chevalier even gives one of Anning’s major discoveries to her brother, which, I mean, come on, this is textbook stuff. On the other hand…on the other hand I expect most of the audience for this book knows nothing about Mary Anning, and now they do a bit, so yay that. (The other book with the same title looks interesting. -ed) (And in fact it is!–MKL)

Anne de Courcy, The Fishing Fleet: Husband-Hunting in the Raj. This is a good book to read a single chapter of, so if you’re interested in any of the chapters for research, by all means, do that. Taken as a whole it is repetitive, and its focus is skewed toward the very, very late end of the period considered–because that’s where the easy research is. Which is great if you’re interested in specific case studies of British women who married men who were in some way serving the British Empire’s governmental, commerce, or military interests in the early 20th century, but less so if you’re interested in broader questions of how these institutions functioned in general. Not one of de Courcy’s best.

Michael J. De Luca, Scott H. Andrews, Erin Hoffman, Jason S. Ridler, and Justin Howe, The Homeless Moon 3 and The Homeless Moon 4. Two more chapbooks by a group of friends. (Again available for free. -ed)¬†One of them has a sub-genre theme (steampunk) and the other is stories in a shared universe. While I would have been reasonably happy to read more of these chapbooks, the progression from an unthemed chapbook to a shared universe seems like it has a natural endpoint here, as writers working together on a project like this could go. It’s also kind of neat to see people growing as writers in ways that you can’t always–or not always consciously–if you’re reading a story here and a story there and not always in sequence. Everyone was doing more by the fourth one than they were in the first one. So yay.

Victoria Finlay, The Brilliant History of Color in Art. This is a lovely coffee-table book about pigment. Finlay has another book (Color: A Natural History of the Palette) that is denser, more prose and more depth, and frankly I like that one better. But this one is not just a lighter version of the same thing. It touches on slightly different anecdotes in the history of art and science, and that’s fun. And sometimes can be shared with people who aren’t committed enough to read a longer prose work.

Stefan Grabinski, The Dark Domain. Early twentieth century dark fantasy short stories from a Polish writer I had never read. Gosh, people were frightened of their own brains in the early twentieth century. The call was pretty much always coming from inside the house. Which is not a bad thing, just a direction to be noted, as people’s tolerance for darkness/horror often varies depending on type.

John Haines, The Stars, the Snow, the Fire: Twenty-Five Years in the Alaska Wilderness. Reread. This was an accidental reread–I picked it up on a whim and just kept going. Haines has some really lyrical nature writing here, and his relationships with snow and dogs make me particularly happy. Also it’s short, so if you fall into it, you can fall back out again without devoting too much of your reading time to it.

Kij Johnson, The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe. This is a feminist Lovecraftian novella, which is not usually my jam, but there is a big one of my buttons to press here, which is: the Gaudy Night button. Early stages of female higher education: yes please give me more. There is a lot of wandering around doing quest stuff (well, it says so on the tin, I am not surprised) and exploring and contextualizing. Which was fine, but the university life was what got me interested here, and I wished for more of it.

Ellen Klages, Passing Strange. Another novella, this one with a 1940 San Francisco setting, focusing on the lesbian community of that time. There were a few places where it felt like it was referencing a larger body of work that to the best of my knowledge is not published, but it was still smoothly written, well-characterized, unique, interesting, and short. (Another piece of fiction with an interesting nonfiction book of the same title. -ed)

Jill Lepore, Joe Gould’s Teeth. Speaking of short books, I only finished this one because it was short, and I have the feeling Jill Lepore feels the same way. (I could be wrong.) She researched would-be historian and revolutionary of the field of history Joe Gould, who was friends with Ezra Pound and E. E. Cummings and all sorts of other Modern poets, and what turned up is that Joe Gould was a fairly nasty person but not in an interesting way. Ezra Pound, not an excellent judge of character: news at 11. Gould hassled, annoyed, and harassed (for criminal definitions of harassed) members of the Harlem Renaissance who were ten times more interesting than he was. Jill Lepore being herself, she was utterly willing to call this out for what it is. But…it still left me feeling like there was no good reason to be reading about him instead of the Harlem Renaissance, except that I was 75% of the way through this very short volume. I’d recommend literally anything else Lepore has done over this book, unless you’re desperately interested in the peripheries of Modernism or the Harlem Renaissance.

Robert Massie, Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman. A giant book with some missed opportunities because of blind spots. Massie does not seem to have spotted that Catherine’s public acknowledgment of her lovers was entirely different than that of, say, Charles II of England, because she was a woman. So there’s this fascinating difference in Russian imperial culture that he ignores or, worse, misconstrues as typical of the rest of Europe. The first half of this, before Catherine takes the throne, is still pretty great, fluidly written, very novelistic. The second half is more back and forth, focusing chapters thematically rather than temporally…which in some ways makes sense, but it leaves you reading about the reaction of someone whose death was covered in the previous chapter. Still recommended, but only when you have a big chunk of time and patience.

Terry Pratchett, A Hat Full of Sky. Reread. The last time I read this book my grandfather was still alive, so the crucial scene relating to Tiffany’s grandmother’s place was merely well-done rather than completely wrenching. I love these books so much, even when they make me cry.

Michael Schumacher, November’s Fury: The Deadly Great Lakes Hurricane of 1913. The past was a dangerous place. This is full of pictures of ships, most of which went down in this storm or at least struggled mightily. It is short and to the point, so if you’re interested in natural disasters, the Great Lakes, or the history of shipping in the US, you’ve come to the right place. Other than that probably give it a miss.

Delia Sherman, The Evil Wizard Smallbone. This is not going to be known as Delia Sherman’s best book, but it’s entirely readable and entertaining. Young would-be magician and cranky mentor, several interesting supporting characters. The beats fall where you’d expect them to, but that’s okay.

Trenton Lee Stewart, The Secret Keepers. Kids’ adventure SF, very much a page-turner. Strange gadgets! Mysterious oppressors! Worried parents whose worries do not prevent adventures! I liked The Mysterious Benedict Society, and I like this. It’s much in the same vein.

Ian Tyrrell, Crisis of the Wasteful Nation: Empire and Conservation in Theodore Roosevelt’s America. A thoughtful analysis of the rhetoric and attitudes of empire and how they interacted with the early conservation movement. Very clear-eyed on the buttons pushed to get the cause supported, for better and worse. The writing style is very academic, and so are the concerns therein, but not inaccessibly so.

Jane Yolen and Adam Stemple, The Seelie King’s War. The conclusion of this trilogy–this volume is very nearly all exciting climax and tying the threads from previous volumes back together. Don’t start here, start with The Hostage Prince. Full of faerie magic and stubbornness.

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