Books read, late October

Sarah Archer, The Midcentury Kitchen: America’s Favorite Room from Workspace to Dreamscape, 1940s to 1970s. This is one of those photo-heavy books that could have done with a dollop more analysis for my taste. The pictures of how kitchens were designed and advertised to Americans over the middle of the twentieth century is interesting, but there were several things that Archer takes as given but could have done deeper work on–or takes as true that I frankly doubt. There’s one moment, for example, where she blames Lillian Moller Gilbreth being tall for kitchen cabinet heights being taller than the average woman would want them. But Gilbreth, while influential in motion study, was only an inch or two taller than the average height Archer cited–and the cabinet height was a good five inches taller. Is it likely that this is all down to one woman, no matter how efficient an efficiency expert, or is there…some other explanation we can think of, somehow, for this phenomenon? Also, cutting off with the avocado green kitchen doesn’t do anything with the fall of the avocado green (harvest gold, etc.) kitchen, which is also interesting, so it seems a curious omission.

Christopher Brown, Rule of Capture. This is an environmental and legal thriller set in the future. It’s a day-after-tomorrow setting, so there’s a lot about this book that may be a little close to the bone. On the other hand, this stuff is worth talking and thinking about, and I wish there was more of this kind of legal thriller in modern SFF. So.

Ben Clanton, Narval et Loutre Amie. This is a kids’ comic I picked up in French in Montreal, about a narwhal and jellyfish making friends with an otter. It’s extremely sweet and did not tax my French skills unduly.

Nicky Drayden, Temper. This is yet another example of Drayden not doing exactly the same thing as anyone else–a nation (world?) composed almost entirely of twins, with virtues and vices split between them, navigating the dichotomous forces that made them and the social assumptions about those forces that are…not quite right. I love worlds where people are approximate rather than exact about what’s going on in their world (that is how science works!!!) and this was an interesting one.

Greg Egan, The Best of Greg Egan. Discussed elsewhere.

Elizabeth A. Fenn, Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82. I really liked the way Fenn managed to deal with the effects on all of North America, not just the part having the American Revolution. The effects on the Mandan and the Sioux and their balance of power, for example, were exactly what I was in this for, and she delivered. This is no less grim than you would expect for a book about a giant continent-spanning smallpox epidemic, but if you’re ready to brace yourself for that it’s really well done.

Daniel Immerwahr, How to Hide an Empire. Imperial America and the ways we do and do not deal with US overseas territories as part of the “real” US. I feel like this one gets a little vague towards the end where the different locations for US airbases and how those are managed gets fuzzy compared to “English spreads worldwide and people drink a lot of Coca-Cola,” but still it’s an interesting read and worth thinking about.

Gina Kolata, Mercies in Disguise: A Story of Hope, a Family’s Genetic Destiny, and the Science that Rescued Them. This is a somewhat disjointed book, starting with the difficulties in getting medical attention to a rare genetic disorder in the first place (difficult if you are close with anyone who has had this experience or is having it right now) and then veering off into how one individual dealt with her genetic lottery. Kolata decided for some reason to treat this individual’s choices as immutable or inevitable in some ways, to focus on what she felt like she “had to” do as though she really did have to, sometimes to the exclusion of other family members in extremely similar situations who had other perspectives and made other choices. Not entirely satisfying.

Laurie Marks, Fire Logic. I’m still not entirely clear why Marks began with the two chapters she began with. After I got through those things got much more interesting. I find particularly compelling her approach to “here are multiple cultures doing the best they know how and being imperfect in the same space, how do they fit together.” I’m very glad I persevered through the first two chapters and am eager to read the rest of the series.

Pat Murphy, Points of Departure. Kindle. I’d read several of these short stories in various anthologies in the past; together they’re a quite different thing, a whole and holistic perspective rather than a tiny window. It’s interesting to me how very different her time travel stories were from the ones I was reacting against in some of mine. How very much less I need to yell at them, basically, than at the men of the same era, though we’re not occupying the same space.

Sarah Pinsker, A Song for a New Day. This is a book I would never have picked up if I didn’t know the author, and I would be much the poorer. I would have read the premise–“musicians finding a way to make music when gatherings are banned”–and rolled my eyes and moved on. But no. No. Sarah is a musician, and as a result, while she believes in the power of music to move people–which it can, it absolutely can–she also knows firsthand the power of musicians to annoy the shit out of each other. This is a book where the musician characters are absolutely real, not idealized versions where the author has muttered “if I’d gotten into music instead of stinkin’ writing, everything would be so much cooler.” And the people who are trying to make money off the musicians are not simplistic villains either, and…yeah. It’s all day-after-tomorrow stuff–an interesting companion to read with Rules of Capture, come to think of it–and I am so glad I trusted Sarah, and you should too.

Natasha Pulley, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street. A novel of Victorian London featuring a clockwork octopus and a universe where the ether is apparently real. Since ether jokes were some of the most hilarious things in my physics major (…we made our own fun…), this bemused me. Entertained me. The way its characters attempted to be practical and failed badly and had to try again in entirely different configurations was interesting. Huh.

Kate Williams, The Babysitters Coven. This was mostly a fun teen read, and I will look forward to the sequel, and one thing I was looking for in it was emotional bond between babysitter and kid. Absolutely present. Yes. And strong friendships, yes, that too. I want to flag that there are some parental mental health issues here, in case anybody wants to handle those with care–I feel like the book is also trying to handle them with care, but I know that some friends really don’t want to relive personal experiences with their own parental mental health crises without warning in their fun teen fantasies, and that’s utterly fair, so: that’s in there.

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