Marissa Lingen (mrissa) wrote,
Marissa Lingen
mrissa

books read, late December

This is not a "year's best" post or a "most recommended" post. I don't think I'm doing one of those. It's just what I've read in the last fortnight.

Alexandre Dumas, The Three Musketeers. Reread. This time through, I noticed how concerned Dumas was that we should know that we can't judge historical figures by the standards of our own time. Just because none of us would even dream of taking money from a woman...that was the main one, actually. He didn't seem very concerned about the dueling, killing people in duels, beating the servants, sleeping with people one actively dislikes, no. But we have to understand that it wasn't as shameful then to take money from a woman; lots of the very best people did it. It's Dumas, so I was amused rather than annoyed. Also I noticed that the lackeys were a great deal younger than I'd initially imagined them when I was 14 or 15 and read it for the first time. Odd little things like that.

Rebecca Goldstein, Properties of Light. Blerrrrg. Okay, first of all, hidden variable theory as neglected genius is not the way to my little ex-physicist heart. And second, loathsome, obnoxious main characters are not the way to my heart either. And there you have Properties of Light. I was not even thrilled with the formatting: having each chapter start with one sentence way at the bottom of the page didn't feel like anticipation for me, or space to ponder, or a way to set off the brilliance of the prose. It just felt wasteful.

Mark Kurlansky, Nonviolence: Twenty-Five Lessons from the History of a Dangerous Idea. There is a really interesting book to be written about the history of nonviolent movements. This was not it. This was a book for people who already believe that Nonviolence Is Always The Answer to read and quote and paraphrase. It didn't address some of the most interesting questions of nonviolent resistance. One of the important questions I feel one has to answer if one is advocating nonviolence across the board, in all circumstances, is, what happens when one encounters someone else who is not following that rule? Kurlansky's answer to this was nonexistent on the personal scale. On the international scale, he attempted to answer with a total failure of imagination: various historical situations, he argued, were so bad that they could not possibly have been made worse if people had refused to defend themselves. I'm sorry, but: they could too have been made worse. Perhaps they wouldn't have been. But they almost certainly could have been, and you have to construct the argument to get me to believe "wouldn't." You can't just assume it. Also Kurlansky tended to quote things various people had said about nonviolence as though it made them true. Without examining them. Bleh. Here's the thing: if you truly believe in an idea, it deserves more in-depth poking and criticism, not less. If you believe in a particular thing, seeing where it didn't work and why, or where it didn't seem to work, is really important. And sticking your fingers in your ears and insisting that it is the universal answer for all things, and that the times it didn't seem to work were people not doing it right -- no. Not useful, not intellectually honest. Just, no. (Kurlansky had wildly varying definitions of the distinction between "nonviolence" and "pacifism." Basically, pacifist movements he liked counted as nonviolent, whereas the ones he didn't like were "passive rather than nonviolent." Bah.)

W. Somerset Maugham, The Narrow Corner. More unpleasant people doing unpleasant things. Um. Well-written enough that I will try another Maugham at some point. But...not yay, really.

Sarah Monette (truepenny) and Elizabeth Bear (matociquala), A Companion to Wolves. So there are people on the internet who think that there are no major female characters in this book, and I have to say: huh? In which book? (What, you think the Sherlock Holmes tales are about Doctor Watson, too, just because he tells them?) And then there are people who think that there are no major human female characters in this book, and I say again, huh? Did they think Kathlin was structurally random? Life lesson: whacking people with axes, while charming and fun, is not the only way to make a difference in the world. Or in the story shape. The end. And speaking of the end: I loved the end. It made all the right kinds of sense to me. Some of the middle was monkeys, monkeys, monkeys. But every time I started to think, "Monkeys, monkeys, monkeys!", the wolf main characters would reassert themselves and improve things again. And in a wolf way, not in a twee "we are monkeys in soft lovely fur" way.

Steven Ozment, Protestants: the Birth of a Revolution. Ozment, as I've said before, is one of my favorite German historians (that is, historians of Germany rather than historians originating there). He is extremely good at making the weird little documentation that's available for around this era into actual interesting stories. I don't recommend this book for people who have no background in Reformation history, but for those who do, he fits together various social bits and pieces in a most useful fashion. This is a very contexty book. Also there are reproductions of various entertaining woodcuts.

K. J. Parker, Devices and Desires. Ahh. The beginning of a new (-to-the-US) K. J. Parker trilogy, "The Engineer Trilogy," which is a promising name for a K. J. Parker trilogy if ever I've heard one. And the characters are very much her sort of characters, if you like that, which I do. They have fairly flat affect and tend to be very sensible, and when you put sensible people with a few skills up against each other, they can really make messes of each other's lives. This is why the Idiot Plot is so unnecessary: because people who are far more interesting to read about than idiots are still so very good at creating chaos in pursuit of their goals. (Please note that "sensible" is not at all the same as "sane" or "attached to conventional morality.") The objects in these books have a very real heft to them, the bits where the metal is raspy or smooth, the way the leather is cut, the other characters' reactions to technological innovations. I am looking forward to the next two in the series quite a bit.

Eliot Pattison, Prayer of the Dragon. Despite the title, not a fantasy novel. This is a mystery set in Tibet. It's apparently part of a series, though I didn't know that before, and I will probably go get the others. Police state interiors plus traditional village culture plus a complete academic outsider -- very fine stuff. I note here that Soho Crime has done an excellent job of capturing my mystery-buying dollar lately. Their cover designs and jacket copy say, "This one is yours," and so far they have not lied. One of my problems in reading mysteries is that I'm sure there are some of the sort of cover design cues that we have in the speculative genres for indicating which subtype of book this is, but I've had nearly 18 years' experience sorting out the spec fic novels of possible interest from the ones that will bore me silly. I don't say that I'm perfect at it, but I have some idea what the marketing department hopes to say to me with the cover of an SF or fantasy novel. With mysteries...well. It's very obvious if they're trying to say, "Chick lit but with a corpse!" or, "This one has cats and will not scare your grandmother!" And then I can ignore those. But there are vast tracts of the mystery genre beyond that, and they might as well be covered in plain blue jackets for all the information I get from them. Is this picture of a slightly blurry lake the sort of thriller that will interest me, or bore me, or disgust me? I don't know. How about this shadowed figure? No idea. Soho Crime has managed to convey, "Interesting setting, good writing, will neither shy away from violence nor wallow in it," with a few general approaches to cover design. And in return they get my money, and the more they get of it, the more they show they deserve it. I don't say that this is the same thing as being well-read in mysteries, but it turns out I don't so much care about being well-read in mysteries, I just want to read good mysteries. I'm sure I'll speak up if they disappoint me.

Terry Pratchett, Hogfather. Reread. I hadn't read this in a long time, and I had lent snurri The Dark Is Rising, so I couldn't reread that, and Hogfather seemed seasonally appropriate. I need to remember that I don't really like Hogfather. I mean, it's mildly entertaining; I don't dislike it. But if I'm going to reread some Pratchett as a seasonal thing, it'd better be Wintersmith. Probably this says horrible things about me as a person.

Cherie Priest (cmpriest), Four and Twenty Blackbirds. I read the third one in this series a few weeks ago, and I can now say: I strongly suspect they're better in order. Don't get me wrong, this was a good book and a fun, quick read, and I'll probably reread it at some point. I have the second one on my pile and am definitely looking forward to that. But this is not a series where knowing how things are going to come out, approximately, is a neutral; a little of the suspense is taken away that way. Read this one first if you have the chance.

Noel Streatfeild, Theatre Shoes. Reread. I remembered this one as a favorite in the Shoes series, so when I was feeling cranky about books, I picked it back up again. I am fascinated to see how much of liking it was stuff I assumed around the edges. The final conflict between the father and the grandmother...was in my head, or at least merely implied. Completely. None of it was on the page. The ending, in fact, was rather standard-issue for a children's war story. Oh well. The very subtly done religious friction...was almost all in my head as well. How odd to have done that sort of thing and not remembered it.

Anne Ursu, The Siren Song. There was a lot of set-up in this book, but the whole thing was fun anyway. The main character, Charlotte, is a smartass who knows better than to say every smartassed thing that pops into her head, so hurrah for that. Also there are consequences all over the place in this book. I like big chewy consequences. I like the way the consequences are set up for the last book.
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