Books read, early January

Anne Applebaum, Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956. This was a very hard book to read, just on an emotional level. But it was immensely well-done, and I recommend it highly if you can find the time and energy. The introduction is a breath of fresh air compared to a lot of works of history, talking clearly about the linguistic efforts required but also–more importantly–spending more time on what other people in her field are doing well than on how Someone On the Internet Journal Of My Profession Is Wrong. So I now have a fairly extensive bibliography about this general cheerful subject. Heads up to those whose interests are a subset of the title: Applebaum’s main focus is in East Germany, Hungary, and Poland, although she does discuss the rest of the region, so if you’re really looking for something that will go into deep analysis on Albania or Yugoslavia, this is not the book. But it has all sorts of references for what would be the book.

Andrea Barrett, Archangel. Either a mosaic novel or a series of related short stories, about scientists/naturalists/inventors in late 19th/early 20th century America. Quite beautifully done, left me wanting more–a lot more. Sadly I think I have read everything she’s done that might be in this vein, so I will have to wait impatiently for whatever is next.

Peter Dickinson, Earth and Air. Dickinson and his wife Robin McKinley had put out two previous collections for Water and Fire, but apparently McKinley’s stories for this one kept growing into novels. I’m glad Dickinson just went ahead and published his–I liked the owl story particularly–but the introduction, when he was saying that he did not plan to stick around into his 90s, was a little alarming, and I’m afraid that’s the bit that stuck with me most. (“Plan” and “expect” are not the same verb.)

Zoe Ferraris, Finding Nouf. A mystery set in Saudi Arabia, in which a traditional religious young man ends up having to learn to work with a woman who is nowhere near as traditional, in order to solve a murder. It took me a bit to get into it, but I’m glad I did; I’ll want the others in the series.

James Gleick, Isaac Newton. A short bio that ranges into the bits of things we do know about Newton and the things we don’t, with side trips to explain the rest of his mental world as necessary. I think mostly of interest if you don’t have any idea about Isaac Newton and would like to–there were some tidbits that were new to me, but for the most part it was well-written review.

Tove Jansson, Moominsummer Madness. I do like Little My. And living in the theater during the flood! I’m almost sure this is a reread, but I don’t have any record of it. (I didn’t keep records of what I read when I was in the single digits.) I missed Thingummy and Bob in this one, but there are other Moomin books for other times.

Jean-Benoit Nadeau and Julie Barlow, The Story of Spanish. Oh, these are so lovely. I could read them for as many languages as they were willing to write them. Not really speaking Spanish was no detriment to my enjoying the way they traced etymologies and grammatical developments. Nadeau and Barlow are Canadian, Quebecois, which gives them a very decentralized and democratic view of languages. While they cover “pure Castilian” as a cultural phenomenon, they are in no way likely to get sucked into thinking of it as “the one real true Spanish that should always be spoken,” and they go into interesting “here’s how they do it differently in this area and here’s why” tangents. Hurrah language.

Sarah Rees Brennan, Untold. Very much a sequel, so start with the first one in the series if you’re interested. Town of nasty (and some not so nasty) wizards, family dynamics, Veronica Mars inspiration, annnnnnngst. Just exactly the sort of thing you’d want when you want that sort of thing.

Dodie Smith, The New Moon with the Old and The Town in Bloom. Just lovely. The former is about a family that must learn to make do under straitened circumstances, and the things that they find to do with themselves are positive without necessarily being at all sex/gender traditional, which, given 1960s setting, is really refreshing. The latter is about some old friends who were involved with the theater, looking back at horrible and wonderful things that happened and how it’s all unfolded since, and it’s got some lovely same-sex living arrangements (not sexual arrangements, but dormitory style living for adults) pre-WWII that…you just don’t find that sort of thing in novels mostly. Dodie Smith is fun and interesting and–I don’t even want to say “subversive,” because she just comes out and says, “No, not that way, that way is dumb.” I am going to reread The One Hundred and One Dalmatians just to see what’s in it that I missed as a child.

Anne Ursu, The Real Boy. The word “autism” appears nowhere in this book, and yet it is a very strong portrait of a young autistic hero in his own cultural context. There is a swerve in the middle where I am afraid she is going to do something problematic, and then she doesn’t, and HURRAH. Anyway: herbs, magic, autistic boy figures stuff out and saves the day without doing an interpretive dance about autism and neurodiversity. There is teamwork between friends with different brain types. I liked this. Hurrah this.

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