Barnstorming on an Invisible Segway - Books read, late October. [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]
Marissa Lingen

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Books read, late October. [Nov. 1st, 2012|10:23 pm]
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Sandra Benitez, The Weight of All Things. A brief novel about a young boy and his grandfather and some guerillas during unrest in El Salvador. I found this entirely readable, well-balanced in moments of death and despair vs. more positive emotions, and still...I don't know. I think whether you find it well-grounded will say a lot about how you find a book grounded. If you find a wealth of sensory details grounding, this certainly has that. However, I found the level to which the 9-year-old main character apparently had no political perspective, even when he was living among guerillas and later army members completely unbelievable. If you swapped out the tortillas and the names for other foods and other names, it could have been almost any country in turmoil without loss of the perspective that I would usually expect of a real-world setting. I get that a 9-year-old won't necessarily have a sophisticated perspective on what's going on, but Nicolas seemed to have no perspective at all, not even a half-formed or parroted one, nor one of who might be comparatively dangerous to him. Not everybody has to want to write a highly political book. If you are someone who doesn't want to write a highly political book, may I suggest not setting your book in the middle of armed insurrection, in most cases.

Marie Brennan (swan_tower), A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir By Lady Trent. Discussed elsewhere.

Robert Bringhurst, The Elements of Typographic Style. I read this for a book club, and it's a good example of why it's nice to have other people picking some of the books sometimes: because I am substantially tone-deaf to a great deal of typography and design, and so I would not have thought to pick up a book like this. There was a lot about it that just completely passed me by. "It's good practice to do this and not that," he would say, and I would look at the examples and go, "O...kay?" But there were a few places where I could see what he meant, some more where he was providing comfortable factual information, and then some where he is completely wrongheaded and should be kicked. Quotation marks, for example. Mr. Bringhurst. Quotation marks are not some enemy agent in a page of otherwise nice type. They are not to be minimized any more than question marks or the letter k are to be minimized. The style of dialog that leads in with a long dash is all very well for marking where it starts, but it turns out that where a piece of dialog ends and the character's actions, the character's internal voice, or the narrative voice begins can also be highly relevant and useful information, and refusing to provide that information because your typographer has taken against the quotation mark is--oh, I despair. And this from a man who can write an entire book about good typeface design without devoting even a section, much less the deserved entire chapter, to the one character that is most often badly designed. I speak, of course, of the integral sign. I have Many Feelings On This Subject. My friends will often say incomprehensible things like, "I am tired of this font. Any suggestions for another good one to use?" And I will look at this question and think, "Has it ceased being legible? No? Then onwards." I get that font choice brings people joy. I can even see where it can improve a cover or webpage, or make it worse. But mostly I do not care, not even a little. But a poorly designed integral sign? This is just not good, and it happens so often, and there's just no excuse for it, and...oh, never mind, Bringhurst does not care, is the point. He does. Not. Care.

Mike Carey, The Unwritten: Tommy Taylor and the War of Words. An interesting positioning of fanfiction/fan art in the arc ending of this ongoing comics plot. I have generally enjoyed Mike Carey's stuff, and I enjoyed this, but it's a bit abrupt. I'll still be interested to see where the next arc goes.

Edmund de Waal, The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Family's Century of Art and Loss. This is a family history centered around the family's netsuke collection. The family in question is a Jewish family from Eastern Europe and Paris in the 19th and 20th centuries. It was a fascinating book, briskly written and very tactile, but one of its main effects was to remind me that I can be induced to covet netsuke. And only really the nicer ones, too. You can get cheap netsuke on Ebay for $7. I don't want any of those. The ones I want tend to be around $3000, and it turns out that if you want to spend $3000 on me, you should probably not do it on a tiny piece of ox bone. Except. You can look at them and smell how they would feel in your hand. You can feel it in the bones of the roof of your mouth. (Possibly this is more an explication of my modes of synesthesia than a book review. Sorry.) The thing is, de Waal works in ceramics and porcelain. He gets the appeal of very tactile objects on more than one very personal level--not just as the most recent member of this family to own these netsuke, but also as someone who makes lovely things for the hands to hold and the eyes to smell. And that comes across in the book, and the moments of aching loss come across very physically too.

Juliana Horatia Gatty Ewing, The Peace Egg and Other Tales. Kindle. More tales from the children's writer enjoyed by Kipling, Nesbit, timprov, and gaaldine. This collection has a few actual stories and a lot of advice on giving children's amateur theatricals in period, so if you end up wanting to write a story in which Victorian/Edwardian children put on a play, this would be good research. Also it's just interesting in that regard. Further, it's a good antidote to the idea that the way we currently celebrate Christmas is fixed and eternal, because it deals with Christmas trees and Father Christmas as rather new traditions--and Christmas mummers as old ones that everyone will have.

Fa-Hien, Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms. Kindle. I do not entirely trust the Many Books listing here, and this is the first Kindle book of which I've really had to say that reading it on Kindle detracted seriously for me. Each chapter was half footnotes at least, and there was no convenient way to go from the item to its note, and so the whole thing was entirely awkward to read in this format. It was a description of various bits of Buddhist practice across the then-Buddhist East, but it was not very edifying without clear maps and ability to flip back and forth to notes. If you're going to seek this out, I recommend not using the free Many Books/Gutenberg version.

Hali Felt, Soundings: The Story of the Remarkable Woman Who Mapped the Ocean Floor. Marie Tharp was a great deal more interesting to me than her biographer's obsessions here. Her biographer lets it be known up front that she was never much interested in science, and it shows in details like the two page ramble about how the biographer does not know the sensory details of Tharp meeting her partner--did their mouths taste like coffee? were the walls painted seafoam green? was she wearing grey or navy? etc. for nearly two solid pages of things that Hali Felt does not know, but which seem important to her and not, since we do not know them, to me. These are things that could be telling details in the right pieces if we knew them. Since we don't, it was tedious wankery. And there were plenty of things that we do know that were interesting--if you actually like the science of the ocean floor and how we found things out about it. Which...Hali Felt apparently mostly doesn't. And wanted to write a biography of Tharp anyway. I'm glad that such a biography exists at all. A flawed work is better than none here. But I have to say I'm confused at the approach.

Judith Flanders, Inside the Victorian Home: A Portrait of Domestic Life in Victorian England. I love Judith Flanders' work so much. She talks about grate blacking and S-bends and all manner of useful things. She is wry and hilarious, concise where concision is called for and expansive where detail can be useful. Even if you don't want to set anything in a Victorian English home--which I don't, particularly--this is interesting reading. I picked it up because she impressed me with previous work, and it had things like the etymology of "hogwash" and explanations for where Victorian notions of what is curative/restful look superstitious from here but might have been dealing with actual problems. (Example: health effects of arsenic-laden wallpapers and paints! By all means, take someone away to the seaside if you have painted the hallway at home with lead-based paint and papered their bedroom with arsenic-dyed wallpaper! The seaside, the mountains, whatever change of air you like!) I am looking forward to her next thing with great glee. It might have plumbing in it too. One never knows.

Ian McDonald, Be My Enemy. Second in its series, very much dependent upon the characters and events of the first. This is portal SF for the YA audience, and I'm finding it greatly entertaining and well-done. I wish we could stop longer in any given place, but the zip is part of the charm.

Henry Petroski, The Evolution of Useful Things. I fear that design books will always frustrate me. Possibly it's my own fault. This one is an older one and did not age particularly well, either. It just struck me as...pretty obvious about the obvious bits and pretty opaque about the non-obvious bits. Which may be inevitable, but is still frustrating.

Tom Reiss, The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo. Biography of Alexandre Dumas's father, also Alexandre (or Alex) Dumas, a French Revolutionary/Napoleonic soldier/general. I didn't mean to have this fortnight as an exercise in exploding myths of It Always Was Like This, but it looks to have worked out that way. Reiss has done a nice job here with looking at the complexities of race relations in this era of Europe--how things were not one great monolith across Europe, nor across time, and also looking at why change happened when and how it did. It fit particularly well with puzzle pieces he didn't provide (but I already had) about malaria and the Seven Years' War (er, separate puzzle pieces) and was generally quite satisfying, except for buying into the Napoleon = short thing, when really, not being as tall as Alex Dumas did not make one short in the least. The elder Dumas seems to have done much derring-do and also suffered many injustices. I don't think the Count of Monte Cristo parallels are at all unfair.

Kari Sperring, The Grass King's Concubine. There are two kinds of large fantasy (well, three, but the third is All Bloat, and that's not so interesting to talk about). There's the kind in which so many things happen that is has to take a lot of pages, and there's the kind wherein the length is a stylistic unfolding, what I tend to call "a pleasure cruise through eel-infested waters." The Grass King's Concubine is the latter. In sheer plot terms it could go faster, but not every book has to have the same pacing. Sometimes things can unfold. This one is an unfolder. Certain among you may find the ferret characters of particular note. I was relieved in the last 50 pages or so to find that it was not going one of the worse predictable places I feared it might, too, philosophically speaking. Sometimes one holds one's breath not for fear someone might get killed but for fear someone's death might mean a thing one doesn't want. I don't think it did. There'll be a sequel, so there's still room for it, but one can at least provisionally breathe a sigh of relief there.
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Comments:
[User Picture]From: zalena
2012-11-02 02:03 pm (UTC)

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The typography book would be perfect for my brother. He talks about this all the time. Between the two of us we could make quite the press... assuming we can ever onboard to 21C technology. (I have a Nook and use it sometimes with differing results, still preferring paper when I have the option.)

And the Flanders sounds awesome for me. I still think that a lot of what we currently suffer would be cured by a trip out of our immediate environments, whether its the petrochemical laced carpeting, or whatever we're calling neurasthenics these days. Alas, germ theory has made the invalid's vacation untenable.
[User Picture]From: mrissa
2012-11-02 02:49 pm (UTC)

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Glad to be of service!
From: okrablossom.dreamwidth.org
2012-11-02 03:08 pm (UTC)

Depth

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I love your review of Felt's book and completely agree. Especially in that I was glad to read it even if it wasn't everything I wanted or that it could have been.
[User Picture]From: mrissa
2012-11-03 11:53 am (UTC)

Re: Depth

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So--and this is the hazard of doing the reviews later rather than immediately upon finishing the book--I have remembered another thing that frustrated me about that book, and I wonder if it frustrated you also. Felt seemed fixated in parts on telling us that Marie Tharp was beautiful. And this does not seem to have been something that her contemporaries remarked upon or took great notice of, and while I think it's entirely possible for tastes to vary and for her biographer to think she is more beautiful than most people did (or would looking at the picture), I also think it's annoying that I don't seem to be able to find a biography of a woman scientist that doesn't insist on her beauty or at the very least her charms. There is a part of me that wants to seek out people's beauty whether it is interior or exterior, but I don't think that's actually what these biographers are doing when they harp on it, and it feels like it's a fundamental confusion about what people are for. In the men's biographies I read, either you don't hear that the guy was handsome or he actually was handsome, but for the most part biographers don't feel the need to tell you what a stunning good looker, for example, Edward Teller was. And I feel this is a good thing. The category of exception I can think of is when a dude got to sleep with a bunch of people, male or female, and his biographer cannot figure out why on earth they agreed to it. Then he will sometimes get described as good-looking even if there's a picture demonstrating the opposite, or else as charming, in that dubious "hell, I dunno, he must have been" sort of tone. But mostly this is an obsession that spatters all over biographers of women, and it depresses me.
From: okrablossom.dreamwidth.org
2012-11-04 10:20 pm (UTC)

Re: Depth

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I confess that the biographer harped on so many things that I did not think as relevant as others that I did not notice the beauty comments. Perhaps it was a defensive mechanism of the biographer? Perhaps there was something in Marie's papers that suggested this as a concern of hers? I cannot come up with a third perhaps, sorry.
From: okrablossom.dreamwidth.org
2012-11-04 10:22 pm (UTC)

Re: Depth

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And also I find this thing you said very moving: and it feels like it's a fundamental confusion about what people are for. I have to think about it more, because I am struggling with what people are for and love what you have said, but either way it seems to me that desire for beauty interior and exterior ought to be a requirement of a biographer.
[User Picture]From: mrissa
2012-11-04 10:48 pm (UTC)

Re: Depth

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I don't know. I really don't. Because desire for beauty, yes, okay. But then, if you are Stalin's biographer? I think you should not be so blinded by all of his evils that you insist that he also kicked the dog on occasions when he did not, in fact, kick that dog. It is enough to slaughter millions without also kicking the dog at every turn. But I also think that it's possible to be a biographer of someone--even someone you admire--while admitting their flaws or--and this part is important--their neutral traits. I think the Morris biographies of Theodore Roosevelt are exemplary at this. They desire to find his goodness without creating it where it didn't exist, and without glossing over the places where it was conspicuously absent.
[User Picture]From: adrian_turtle
2012-11-02 03:30 pm (UTC)

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explanations for where Victorian notions of what is curative/restful look superstitious from here but might have been dealing with actual problems. (Example: health effects of arsenic-laden wallpapers and paints! By all means, take someone away to the seaside if you have painted the hallway at home with lead-based paint and papered their bedroom with arsenic-dyed wallpaper! The seaside, the mountains, whatever change of air you like!)

This continues to be a Thing, with the details changing only slightly from lead-based paint and arsenic-dyed wallpaper to polyurethane in foam cushions and formaldehyde in particleboard. The seaside cabin has old furniture that's done offgassing.
[User Picture]From: carbonel
2012-11-02 04:55 pm (UTC)

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I've requested The Elements of Typographic Style from the library, because it sounds like just my sort of thing.

Thanks for bringing it to my attention.