Books read, early August

Christopher Brown, Tropic of Kansas. Apparently two different professional reviewers described this as “the feel-bad book of the summer,” which makes me laugh and yet is not entirely wrong. (I enjoyed this book.) It’s an alternate America torn apart by climate change, a fascist government, the surveillance state, and…alternate. Yes. It is indeed alternate. But there are parts that make you wince, and the “ultimately hopeful” ending promised on the cover is a…conditionally hopeful ending. It’s the kind of hopeful ending that involves burning down institutions that need burning down. Which, depending on your personality, may be upsetting for you right now or just what you need.

Lois McMaster Bujold, Mira’s Last Dance. Kindle. This is the latest Penric novella, and I felt that it completed the arc of a previous story rather than standing on its own. It explores a bit more of what exactly it means to have all of Desdemona’s previous hosts living in Penric’s head with their own identities, but it’s at novella length, not novel, while juggling action and romance along with it, so while it seemed to me to be handled respectfully, there was plenty of room to go into more of it if she continues with this series.

Italo Calvino, Collection of Sand. This was a series of essays, all very short, very erudite, very much in the vein of, “Huh, wouldja lookit that.” If someone is not going to get intimidated by it being Calvino, it’s an ideal bathroom book, despite not being screamingly marketed as Italo Entertains You On the John or anything like that. Short attention span theater of letters.

Zen Cho, The Terracotta Bride. Kindle. Another novella, this one set in a Chinese-Malaysian hell with all the theological implications of same–with technological developments appropriate thereto, and interpersonal relationships the same. There’s a lot packed into novella length here, and I liked it.

George MacDonald Fraser, The Steel Bonnets. A history of the Scottish-English border and the wars and raids they had and the period when they settled down into not so much having them. This had been on my library list for awhile, and I thought, well, I’ll give the first few pages a chance and send it back rather than have it languish indefinitely on my list. Fraser doesn’t do what a modern historian would do with the topic, but he’s plenty engaging. I had had quite enough of the exploits of various clans and their scions by the time I was done, but it was a fast read for its size and worth the trouble of getting it from the library; I’m glad I tried it rather than thinking that anything that was on the list that long was clearly not a priority.

Seanan McGuire, Down Among the Sticks and Bones. A novella prequel to Every Heart a Doorway, and…I feel like it undermined that book weirdly. Every Heart a Doorway did the not-obvious thing, it did the “what happens after” thing. Down Among the Sticks and Bones gives you the portal fantasy that begins it all. Except that of all the fantasy worlds hinted at in Every Heart a Doorway, it picks the most obvious, least interesting one to portray–and only one–and then gives a backstory that makes the plot of EHaD feel…like it makes a lot less emotional sense to me. I don’t want to be more spoilerific than that, but people who have read both and would like to talk should email me about the experience.

Naomi Mitchison, The Fourth Pig. This is a collection of Mitchison’s retold fairy tales, done in the 1930s. It is fascinating in its own right, it’s fascinating if you’re passionately interested in the Great Depression (which I am), and it’s fascinating if you’re interested in retold fairy tales and want a look at what they looked like before Angela Carter got at them. I’m slowly working my way through Naomi Mitchison (she and Gerald Vizenor and Rebecca Solnit are the triumvirate of the moment that way–write me a joke where they walk into a bar) and I’m very very glad to have gotten to this one.

Rebecca Solnit, Savage Dreams: A Journey Into the Hidden Wars of the American West. And speaking of whom. This is not what I thought it was. It is mostly about nuclear testing. It is a bit about Yosemite and how we construct ideas of wilderness and other legends of The West. But it is really, really substantially about nuclear testing, which is something I mostly had focused on when it was interesting from a physics standpoint; what Solnit illuminated in some ways and could not illuminate in others, was not trying to, was the category of nuclear testing that occurs when the physics has been settled, and as a recovering physicist that had an extra-special horror. I think there are ways in which she made some stabs at understanding the physicists involved and got some part of the way there and some ways in which…eehhhh. I love me some W.H. Auden, too, but he is not a source of all models for everything in life maybe? I mean, maybe I’m wrong, maybe he is, but we can at least talk about this. “W.H. Auden handed me a dichotomy!” You’re allowed to hand it back I think. Uncle Wystan is dear and beloved, but so are your 6-year-old cousins, and some of the things they hand you can be deposited in the trash and your hand washed thoroughly after. I am still glad I read this. But I spent moments making faces of not-really-no.

Shannon Watters, Kat Leyh, Cary Pietsch, et al, Lumberjanes: Sink or Swim. What is better than Lumberjanes? Lumberjanes with a focus on water myths. Yes. For sure.

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