Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux. You can comment here or there.
Traveling in mid-July means a combined post, so settle in, friends, this is going to take a minute. Especially because travel this time meant a lot of reading short things on my Kindle on public transit.
Kate Bernheim, How a Mother Weaned Her Girl From Fairy Tales. This is mostly fairy tale-esque and fairy tale-inspired short stories. They are published with the gimmick–and I do feel that gimmick is the right word–of one paragraph per page, which means that some pages contain a single line. If you’re not reading much that’s fairy tale related, this volume will probably be a revelation. If you are, it’s another contribution to the sub-genre, fairly far over to the self-consciously literary end, but not particularly a stand-out.
Michael Bishop, One Winter in Eden. Reread. I could see that these stories were decently well-written, and yet none of them really got to me anywhere emotional. Very Cold War, I should have reread this for the Cold War Fantasy panel. Ah well.
Chaz Brenchley, Dust-Up at the Crater School Chapter 5. Kindle. Moves the plot forward considerable-like. Probably will not get to another chunk of these until I’m traveling again, as I am not a good serial reader, and they are acutely and deliberately pieces of a thing rather than whole things on their own. Still, there is plot and to spare here.
Marie Brennan, Lightning in the Blood. Second novella in its series, still using memory loss and identity to good effect, still doing action fantasy things but not solely action fantasy things. Quick and fun.
Octavia Butler, Mind of My Mind. Reread. This is an incredibly nasty book about telepathy and its implications for a caste system and parenthood and interpersonal relationships. It being Butler, it’s incredibly well done, and I’m going to want to reread the rest of the series before I have fully formed thoughts about what it’s doing, but it made me squirm quite a lot.
Edwidge Danticat, The Dew Breaker. A novel in pieces, reflecting the effects of a man, a torturer working in a prison for a totalitarian regime and then moving on, moving away to America, on the people around him. Fascinating and kaleidoscopic, although in some places too successful at getting me invested in one character or another who was going to disappear into the rest of the background and never become foregrounded again.
Bradley Denton, One Day Closer to Death. Reread. Oh, you can smell the prairie coming off Brad Denton’s short stories. They smell like the dust that comes off corn fields in August, the weeks when the highs are all over 100 F. Some of these are incredibly nasty work, some only mildly unpleasant, and I still love them, they are still worth rereading, they still hit me in the places where I know where the hits are coming. I reread this for a Heartland Fantasy panel that went completely different places than I expected, so we only brushed by it briefly, but I still don’t regret the reread. I look at some of the old pieces differently than I did–oh, the women in “The Calvin Coolidge Home for Dead Comedians”–but that doesn’t mean I’ve stopped loving them.
Chynna Clugston Flores et al, Lumberjanes Gotham Academy. This is the first crossover issue of a comic I’ve ever read where I’ve been reading both streams being crossed. So now I can say for sure: I just don’t like crossovers. I particularly think they’re a terrible idea for two ensemble cast comics like Lumberjanes and Gotham Academy, where you’re juggling large casts anyway. What’s Maps doing plus what’s Ripley doing would have been quite enough to keep track of without throwing in every single other character. It’s kind of a mess, and for me there was less fun than a single volume of either comic, not even the average of the two, much less the sum of the two.
George Fosty and Darril Fosty, Black Ice: The Lost History of the Colored Hockey League of the Maritimes. Kindle. Come for the hockey history, stay for the history of Black Canadians. Wow, the Fostys are going to make sure you get schooled whether you wanted to or not. (I did want to.) And they make a quite solid argument for Maritime Black hockey players making serious strides in the game decades ahead of white players. If you’re a hockey fan, if you’re interested in history of the icy regions, if you’re interested in how different cultural groups have interacted–and an unflinching look at how power has corrupted that–this is a solid and not unduly long look at all of that.
Lisa Goldstein, Tourists. Kindle, reread. Why didn’t I hate this book? I still can’t tell you. The title comes from the observation that we are all tourists in each other’s lives, which does not have to be true and I think is not in better lives true, but wow do these characters ever live as though they’re determined to make it true. Nor do they have a great deal of growth over the course of the book. Meanwhile the pseudo-Arabic country they’re visiting is entirely backdrop for their own (lack of) character arcs, its mythos writing itself on the messed up visitors’ minds, sometimes literally, and…why don’t I hate this book? It’s pretty messed up, honestly, and I can’t recommend it. All sorts of better books do better things with culture clash and visiting. Maybe I just want to keep it around to contrast with Hav or The Necessary Beggar or…something? I am still turning this over in my head.
Paul Gruchow, Boundary Waters: The Grace of the Wild. Hiking memoir in four seasonal sections. This has some of the best writing about hiking while cranky I’ve ever read. There are also more traditionally lyrical sections, but I howled with laughter as Gruchow got more terse, his sentences more clipped and bitten off, as his dreadful day hiking wore on…and then he told of the same hiking buddy teasing him for the foibles of the day on a trip together three years later. This is the first of his books I’ve read since the memoir of the depression that eventually killed him, and I could see the shadows of that here, but not enough to make it a sad book for me, not to spoil my love of his nature writing. Which feels like an honor and a relief.
David George Haskell, The Songs of Trees: Stories from Nature’s Great Connectors. This is a set of essays on different specific trees in different parts of the world. Conveniently for me, one of the types he was talking about was very familiar, very close to home (chert-rooted fir), so I could gauge how he talked about things I don’t know by how he talked about things I do. I would happily read more of this sort of thing all the time.
Billie Holiday with William Dufty, Lady Sings the Blues. This is the sort of autobiography that’s done as an “as told to,” and my golly do I not recommend it for a day when you’re already feeling dubious about humanity, because Holiday’s life, particularly her childhood, was utterly harrowing. Dufty captures her voice in a breezy, very readable way. I read that there was some question about some of the fact checking, but human memory is fallible, and there were limits on what she was permitted to tell of her truth in the late 1950s; I was moved to seek out a later, more comprehensive biography from the recent past, when a biographer would be permitted to be clear about interracial and same-sex relationships while still focusing on the strength of Holiday’s music. That’s just come in from the library; stay tuned. In the meantime, while her life was harrowing, her voice is not. Pick a day when you’re feeling strong, but it’s worth your time if you’re at all interested in jazz.
David King, Finding Atlantis: A True Story of Genius, Madness, and an Extraordinary Quest for a Lost World. Kindle. Oh lordy this book. The title does not tell you what it is actually about. It is actually about this Swedish speculative archaeologist in the seventeenth century, Olof Rudbeck, who decided that Atlantis was located in…Uppsala. And he kept going, he kept finding all the other Greek mythological stuff elsewhere in Sweden. No, all of it. No, really, all. He just. Kept. Going. There is that seventeenth century thing where you have someone genuinely erudite–Rudbeck discovered the lymphatic system–and then he goes completely off the rails and finds an entirely new set of rails to go off of, like, builds an entirely new railway system just to go off it. I was talking to my friend L about this and they mentioned autodidact syndrome. I think that the entire seventeenth century has that–there was the thing where they were largely self-taught by modern standards–and hoo boy, did Rudbeck ever. He decided that it made no sense that Greek could be derived from Phoenician when Phoenician had no vowels and Greek did, but! But the runic alphabet did! So clearly the Greek alphabet was derived from the runic alphabet! Also the derivation of Hercules (Herakles) made no sense to him because of that hero’s rocky relationship with the goddess in question, so he “found” an alternative Swedish derivation meaning “dressed in warrior’s clothes” that made much more sense to him. And it just keeps going. And I sat and read this while eating sushi by myself in a restaurant and thinking, surely he will come to his senses, and no, he decides that they have to teach classes at Uppsala in the original Swedish, which, great, except, wrong reasons, and everyone is all in a dither, and oh this book. Oh. This. Book. It was a great lunch.
Nancy Kress, Tomorrow’s Kin. Discussed elsewhere.
Mark Kurlansky, The Basque History of the World. Reread. I think my main complaint about this book, nearly two decades later, is that it isn’t, it’s mostly a Basque history of Basque country, which is very interesting and I liked it a lot and found it worth keeping around, but there was a Basque diaspora. He mentions it. He mentions having cousins in America. He just…doesn’t talk about what they did there, what the cultural effects were both directions. So…that, maybe? But early microhistory is hard, determining what belongs in it. Still cool.
Ellen Kushner, Thomas the Rhymer. Reread. Captures the fairy tale voice of the ballad, goes on beyond the original ballad tale’s end into implication, picks up perspective from other characters. Unlike some others in this series, the setting is very much the setting of the original ballad, more or less–country appropriate, generically time appropriate to when such a tale might have been set by those telling it. So from here it feels like the least revolutionary of Kushner’s books. But it was a comfortable and lovely read, and certainly made me think not at all of the plane around me, and very few things in the world can be The Fall of the Kings; only one that I can think of.
Ben Loory, Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day. These stories are the kind of very short dark fantasy/horror that feel like they have the same kind of messagey twist at the end, a revelation that is not as startling as it could be, but is supposed to make you gasp at the prose and also make you think. And they are all of a piece. I think they will work better if you read them one at a time with long pauses between, instead of the whole book at once. There will be some that really will be revelatory both in prose and in twist. But it’s a lot to ask of every story with the same structure all in a row.
Elizabeth Lynn, A Different Light. Kindle. So there is an artist who has gotten stale because he has to make art living on the same planet all the time, but he has a genetic condition that is going to kill him much quicker if he travels off-planet. And I thrashed a bit at this premise, because literally every artist we have ever known has had to make art living on the same planet all the time. Like, ugh, you are cramping my style, entire planet! This guy has gotten to be all of the elderly age of thirty and he is so stagnant because one planet is not enough, and I just eyebrowed so hard and thought, how am I going to get through an entire book with this spoiled damn brat of a man. But okay, okay; some of us are not really all that happy in some settings, I decided to go with it. And it worked out all right, he ran around and figured out some things and met some people and there was plot and there were relationships and Lynn carried through on the premise: there was no magic hey-presto your genetic condition is all fixed now yaaaaays. So there were interesting things about this, and if you can get past the initial moment of are you kidding me thirty years on just one planet poor you, I found it worth reading.
Ben Marcus, The Age of Wire and String. This is the kind of very short story where the author has aimed at surrealism by substituting in words nonsensically, often proper names for common nouns, giving you the rhythm of language without the sense of it. Sure, fine. I get it. I decided to keep reading in case the cumulative effect was more pleasantly disorienting or gave me a different angle on what he was doing. Not really. Eh. Quite often people who write this sort of thing want to categorize readers into those who love it and those who don’t get it, and: eh, fine, sure, if you like that, but: not really.
Emma Marris, Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World. The thing that I really appreciated about this book is that it was willing–alone among the environmental and nature writing I read–to seriously interrogate what is practically possible for habitat restoration and–here’s the important bit–what we are doing it for. Marris did not entirely pretend that she had complete answers, that any one person had complete answers. But she was willing to ask questions that feel fairly taboo in other nature writing, or that feel…too reverential, perhaps? That feel as though their writers don’t want to ask them because asking them is used as a rhetorical device to say that there is no answer, rather than that there are several answers.
Colin Meloy, Wildwood. Meloy is the frontman for the Decembrists. You can tell. One, because there are occasional word choices that feel very familiar if you know the Decembrists, and two, because children’s books are not mostly permitted to ramble quite this way if the author isn’t either established or Somebody. This is an urban fantasy with its urban not-really-wild-erness tucked into Portland, Oregon, and it’s not quite coherent about that. The wild creatures are basically entirely citified, inside their “Impassable Wilderness”; they are mostly anthropomorphic birds and animals but some humans also, and they have things like postal services and militias. Very wild. The villain is going to use an invasive species and infant sacrifice to destroy all the other species, but not in favor of, y’know, development or something, because the city here is Portland, and Portland can’t be bad. Portland also can’t be specific in any way. You get the feeling of Portland from the characters if you’ve spent any time in Portland, not from the details of the setting. It is very, very white and very, very hipster, and very, very Portland. I like Portland. I never thought that I should put down this book with its cyclist heroine and superhero-drawing hero and go read something else. And yet I kept noticing all the opportunities it missed.
Judith Merril, Daughters of Earth and The Tomorrow People. Reread. I read these for an appreciation panel about Judith Merril, and most of the people on it also clearly had reread some of her work too, which was a joy. One point I did not get to on the panel: I think The Tomorrow People is the only portrayal I can think of where vestibular effects and anxiety effects are correctly tied to each other. Well done. Also: in what other work of that early era is a returned astronaut allowed to be a drunken wreck? She was doing all sorts of things other people were not even thinking of.
Judith Merril and Emily Pohl-Weary, Better to Have Loved. Reread. Fascinatingly juxtaposed with her fiction, not always in an entirely self-aware way. For someone who claims never to have internalized stereotypes, she certainly could reproduce some of them to specification…and yet there are some amazing and fascinating stories here, some of which made me want to cry and punch people on her behalf. Even having read them before. Maybe especially having read them before.
L.M. Montgomery, Short Stories 1896 to 1901. These are in some ways fascinatingly linear compared to her novels. Good intentions always carry the day. “Let’s do something nice for someone–yay, that was nice!” is not at all how it works in Montgomery’s novels. In these short stories? Always. Nothing ever backfires. Strange to see the contrast, especially with such little investment required.
William Morris, News from Nowhere. Kindle. This is the kind of utopian fiction that is entirely didactic: you go around with the protagonist and hear how well things work in the future, tra la. How much nicer it all is. And in fact this works far better than when Morris is trying to make fiction go, so I enjoyed it better than with plot–but the time travel aspect is frustrating, knowing that the protag will awake and find him on this cold hillside of the Victorian present.
Carrie Anne Noble, The Mermaid’s Sister. What a weird and uncomfortable book. The message is ostensibly about accepting people for who they are. But actually there is a metric buttload of modesty politics (ew) with a side order of weirdness about “Gypsies” (WHAT NO STOP THAT). Also the love story is basically 95% pining and then 5% surprise this all worked out, so…yeah, that did not work for me. At all.
Henry Petroski, The Road Taken: The History and Future of America’s Infrastructure. This is mostly a book about roads and bridges, with a digression in the middle about whether our perception that things used to be built better in the past is about survivorship bias. There is so very much about infrastructure that Petroski barely skims or does not even touch on. (Ports. Waste treatment. Need I go on.) And…it’s a short book, but he chose to write a short book. This is okayish as far as it goes. Like most of our infrastructure planning and funding, it doesn’t go nearly far enough.
Marta Randall, Journey. Kindle. This is a book with a family taking care of refugees and having fallout from different choices and different reactions to those choices. Why did no one tell me about Marta Randall two decades ago? Well, never mind, we’re here now, with family relationships and consequences and being the political back end of the galaxy and new tech that isn’t quite what we wanted it to be and all sorts of other things I like in science fiction.
Robert Reed, The Dragons of Springplace. Reread. This is another set of short stories that was quite well written in some directions and made no emotional impact on me whatsoever. I put it back on the shelf so that when I pick it up to reread in another fifteen years, it will be entirely new to me again. I wanted to love something here, but alas, I just didn’t.
Pamela Sargent, The Alien Upstairs. Kindle. The title made this look like a romp to me. It was not. It was a quietly panicky book about a real dystopia, not a flashy thing with sorted categories but a society in which everyone is poor and struggling and everything is falling apart and everybody is making do the best they can. And into this comes an alien with more resources, and he turns things upside down in some ways, for the characters, between the characters, and they have to sort themselves, they have to figure out what to do about the entire situation, what to do with themselves, what they want to do with themselves. This book feels very modern in that way that things from the beginning of the Reagan era with the late ’70s remnants of gas shortages and some mysterious disease coming up and who knew where that would even go can feel very modern in the beginning of the Trump era when everyone you know is in some direction not okay, and I recommend it conditionally: if that will feel comforting, companionable, this is the book for you, and if the opposite, back away.
Ageeth Sluis, Deco Body, Deco City: Female Spectacle and Modernity in Mexico City, 1900-1939. This is a brilliant work that weaves in fashion, colonialism, post-revolutionary work for women, and various aspects of architecture. It is like literally nothing else I have ever read in the types of thought and human interaction it is trying to discuss together, and I found it wondrously useful and interesting. You probably can’t find it at the corner market, but I absolutely recommend finding it somewhere.
Jo Walton, The Prize in the Game. Reread. Various people treating each other as various kind of object and rebelling against same, or not, in their own ways. I found this immensely absorbing on the second read, many years after the first read; its speculative conceit is a very particular kind of destiny, and I’ve had conversations with Jo about the different kinds and concepts of destiny since I first read it. I think not the book of hers she would want you to start with, probably not even the book of hers set in this universe that she’d want you to start with, but I was glad to return to it all the same.
Eliot Weinberger, 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei (with more ways). What a brief and delightful book. It deconstructs a Chinese poem in detail, from the character level upward. By the time he got to the first decent version, he had shown me enough that I could blurt out loud, “Now, there you go!” There are forays into translation from Chinese into Spanish, German, and French; there are discursions into single prepositions and also bits where Weinberger gets quite sharp with other translators about botany, there is a point at which he makes a dire academic enemy, and more than one member of my household had to look up for absolutely certain whether Eliot Weinberger was a real person or a joke Octavio Paz was having on all of us. It is hilarious, sometimes intentionally so. It grasps a great many important points about translation extremely keenly. There may be a point or two about the philosophy of the original poem that fall by the wayside along the way. But there are only 88 pages in this volume, so it will cost you very little time to find it and judge for yourself.
Barbara Willard, The Lark and the Laurel. Reread. This is an historical YA romance from my own youth, and it doesn’t really do much plot except for the plot twist that is simultaneously predictable and alarming. However, the prose rattled along briskly and there wasn’t much of it, so I felt entirely fine reading it until it was done; I just don’t think I’ll want to reread it. It’s set at the beginning of the reign of Henry VII, but far from court and focused on non-courtly virtues, which I would expect to like more than I did. Maybe if the romance plot twist hadn’t been so much itself.
Patricia C. Wrede, Snow White and Rose Red. Reread. Another fairy tale retold, this one very very Elizabethan. It has John Dee in it, and I do not pitch the book across the room when he appears, so you know that it is well-done, because: John Dee. I like stories with bears in them, but not enough to make up for John Dee without some other things well-handled also.
Isabel Yap, Hurricane Heels. Five girls grow to young womanhood fighting the forces of evil as superheroine avatars of a goddess, in anime mode but in a story told in prose. They become close friends, not entirely by free choice–but very few of our relationships are shaped entirely by free choice. This is very much a story centered on women’s friendships. Two of them also have a romantic relationship for part of the book. I think it would not have worked at a much longer length, but it didn’t have to; it was the length it needed to be. It was sweet and fun and had characters whose backgrounds were ethnically and personally specific. I am so glad there is this book.