Books read, late April

Elizabeth Bear, Stone Mad. This is a sequel to Karen Memory but with very different focus and structure. Karen and Priya have moved on–taking some of their more interesting machinery with them–and some of the discoveries they make along the way are earth-shaking. Also building-shaking. But the heart of this story is relationship stuff, established relationship stuff, ongoing relationship stuff, in a way that we rarely get to see in genre narrative. Making things work, getting things to a point where they can keep going, is a very different plot than finding one’s sweetheart, and I’m glad to see it here.

Kate Cavett, ed., Voices of Rondo: Oral Histories of St. Paul’s Historic Black Community. This is an amazing book. It’s a compilation of interviews with people who lived in the neighborhood in question, and Cavett is smart enough to let the interviews speak for themselves. There’s a great diversity of experience–economic, cultural, personal–and putting it side by side does so much to make it vivid and layered and real, with joy and suffering and the human experience in miniature, in neighborhood form. This is my city. There are probably similar stories for yours, and I recommend that you find them, because this is worth knowing about the structure of where you live, what has been lost and what remains, what your neighbors have to say about it.

Craig Laurance Gidney, Skin Deep Magic. The title of this collection is extremely well chosen; they are fantastical and dealing with race and culture in ways that go beyond the superficial.

Joy Harjo, How We Became Human: New and Selected Poems: 1975-2001. Harjo is from Oklahoma, and the southern plains sing through the poems. This is not my prairie, but I can see how my prairie will slip down into this one, hotter and dryer. Harjo’s Muscogee background also informs her poetry in ways that sing through it, and I don’t know the songs the way I do the songs from the neighbors up here, but that doesn’t make them any less interesting to read.

Faith Erin Hicks, Rosemary Valero-O’Connell, Jen Wang, Holly Black, et al, Lumberjanes: Bonus Tracks. This was a bunch of side tales of whimsy and wonder and friendship to the max. Already sold on it. Yep.

Jim Kacian, Philip Rowland, and Allan Burns, eds., Haiku in English: the First Hundred Years. Okay so look. We do not do this with terza rima, people. We do not look at terza rima and say, okay, sure, this is a major cultural form, extremely important to you, but we’re going to say that when WE do it, it means basically whenever we want and not ANY of the stuff it means to you, but it’s the same thing with the same name yay. And I have serious issues with the way that Anglophones do that with haiku. This is an anthology of extremely short poems, and that is it. They have literally no other requirement than that. I decided within the first few pages that I could read them on that premise or not, since that’s what they are, and I did read them, and I learned some things about very short poems. But I still object to just willy-nilly declaring that minuscule poems get to be haiku because we feel like it. ANYWAY. One of the things I learned: repetition in really short poems is not nearly as searingly effective as the poets want it to be. Mostly, in poems of less than fifty words, it’s pretty bland. Interesting to have a large data set there. I still wish that they were not so blithe about how haiku can be three words or a bunch of letters or whatever. Eh.

Andrus Kivirahk, The Man Who Spoke Snakish. This is an Estonian fantasy novel set at a sort of mythical version of the Christianization of Estonia, with the new ways symbolized by such newfangled innovations as eating bread and living in villages, and the old ways by speaking snakish and intermarrying with bears. This is a weird, weird book, and the bear-on-woman sex is right there in it, so if you are not up for that, you’re going to want to opt out here. It is…well, look, I picked it up because the Estonian ambassador was like, this is the one book you should read to represent Estonia! and huh. Huh. It idealizes a natural state that never was, it is extremely weird about sex and gender and let us not even get into the role of “speaking German” or farming tools and…yeah, so, Canadians? if you want to not feel alone about the ursine stuff? in your books? sidle on up to Estonians, they’ve got you covered. In bears.

Ian Lendler, One Day a Dot. Discussed elsewhere.

D. Peter MacLeod, Northern Armageddon: The Battle of the Plains of Abraham and the Making of the American Revolution. Quite often I say of nonfiction “does what it says on the tin.” This does not: the making of the American Revolution is an extremely minor component of this book. What it does do is consider the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in loving detail from primary sources in more than one language. Popular songs get quoted extensively. It’s a lot of fun, sardonic in spots, but it’s very specialized, so judge for yourself whether you’re interested in something quite that specialized.

Sujata Massey, The Salaryman’s Wife. This is the beginning of a long mystery series, and maybe the later volumes are really cool. I will probably not find out, because this is very very mid-90s, in that way that was so perkily fascinated with all things Japanese in a very exoticizing way. Everything is explained in words of very few syllables: in Ja-PAN…. It also…starts with a sexual assault on a commuter train and goes from there. The ways that this book parsed as sexy or at least daring have not aged particularly well in a few places. I really liked Massey’s recent historical non-mystery novel, so I had hopes for this, and I did finish it, it just…didn’t hit me very well. Which is a shame; I could use another good mystery series. I just don’t think this is it.

Moliere, The Imaginary Invalid. Kindle. The first translation that came up on Gutenberg, and it was a stinker of a translation, no nuance whatsoever, but I speak enough French to be able to spot what the better version would look like, and anyway I was reading it in preparation for going to see a production of it. It was not a good production, this is not a good translation…and yet I’m really glad I read it, thinking and talking about it with the person I went with has been fascinating, and you can see the bones of an interesting comedy about relationships and trust through both things being suboptimal.

Hans Rosling, with Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Ronnlund, Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World–And Why Things Are Better Than You Think. There’s a lot to like in this book–Rosling uses facts and figures to undermine a lot of well-educated westerners’ stereotypes about the rest of the world, ways in which worldviews have not been updated in 50 years or more, etc. I agree with Rosling that believing that things can actually be improved in the ways that they factually, verifiably have been improved will help us to be heartened to work toward improving more things. Hurrah. However, he goes off the rails in some areas that are not his main area of expertise, missing the point in ways that really have the potential to do harm because of his own firm, serene conviction that he couldn’t possibly have missed anything. A few easy examples: he brings up DDT as “safer than we think” because “it has not directly killed any humans.” Probably not true–very few manufactured products have no manufacturing fatalities–but in any case, direct, immediate human deaths are not the only possible point and also he completely neglects the DDT resistance that has come about in the areas where it’s continued to be used. So…stop that, Rosling. Another example: he blithely claims that menstrual pad companies “should be” trying to exploit the poorest markets as they emerge from being even poorer still, rather than questioning whether that’s really a case of “should.” Do those factors need reinforcing under the guise of pure fact? They really, really don’t, and I wish there was a good book about improvement in extreme poverty worldwide and general examining of statistics in that kind of area that didn’t wander off into that kind of bad logic.

Maighread Scott and Robin Robinson, The City on the Other Side. Discussed elsewhere.

Robert Service, Spies and Commissars: The Early Years of the Russian Revolution. If you’re looking for an account of what things were like on the ground, for Russians, this is sure not it. This is about who knew what among various groups, many/most of them foreign. So if you want to hear a bunch about Arthur Ransome’s Russian Revolution–which, surreally, I guess I did–here is a book for you. It’s another piece in that very large puzzle. I like having more pieces, but at the end of the day I’m more interested in most of the other pieces, and I expect most of you will be too.

Carrie Vaughn, Martians Abroad. Discussed elsewhere.

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