Marissa Lingen (mrissa) wrote,
Marissa Lingen
mrissa

Books read, early March.

Marvin H. Albert, All the Young Men. Grandpa's. This is more interesting as an historical document than as a book. It's very short, and it was not clear from the cover copy whether it was a novelization of a movie or whether it was written and then more or less immediately made a movie of, but it's from 1960, and the main character is approximately exactly Sidney Poitier whether the chicken came first or the egg. And it is, start to finish, a piece of propaganda for racial integration, using the Korean War and the USMC as an example. My grandpa had lived through that and spoke of it as the best thing Harry Truman ever did, because it simultaneously got him smart, competent black people to work with and got rid of the idiot white people who refused to take orders from black people ("only they did not call them black people, Rissy"--yes, I kind of guessed that, Grandpa), so I guess I shouldn't be surprised that he bought The Heroic Tale of a Heroic Black Sergeant whose white lieutenant and white more-senior sergeant got killed in battle and who had to win over and lead white Southern troops under fire in Korea and incidentally win the love of a beautiful and intelligent Korean girl, save her from rape by a horrible man, and save the life of a prejudiced white soldier who would have to involuntarily take the Heroic Black Sergeant's blood transfusion and change his mind about Everything. All before breakfast. This book was many things, but subtle? Not on the list. But you know what? It didn't have to be. In 1960 there were writers going, "And the heroic leader can be the black guy, DAMMIT, and the pretty Korean girl can be smart, DAMMIT," and there were people who were saying, "Yeah, about time for that sort of thing in our entertainment, I'll take one of those," and one of them was Grandpa. So okay.

One of the interesting things about this book was that the Navajo private was sort of assumed to be completely white and sort of assumed to be completely not. And the places where those assumptions bumped up against each other were really interesting to me. And also there was a character who was trying to be a writer and complaining that none of the guys in the unit were the standard issue war movie characters--but there was One Native American Private and he happened to be a Navajo. But anyway.

Lauren Beukes, Zoo City. I thought this had interesting world-building and characters. Also, people who want to do gritty novels should take a lesson from Lauren Beukes and research them. Look at the postscript to Zoo City. She is not talking about her psychic knowledge of the seamier side of life. No! She is talking about all the time and energy she put into researching all the awful things that can happen to people. Gritty doesn't come out of nowhere! The worst kind of faux-gritty novels come from people who think that the worst thing that can happen is a middle-class kid taking a working class job to show up their families. Lauren Beukes has looked into social upheaval, refugee camps, displaced families, and more. So when she tries to write a lower-class slum, it comes out feeling like a slum.

Chaz Brenchley (desperance), House of Doors. I think this is my favorite Chazbook. It's a good thing I got it as a random surprise present though, because the cover copy is more or less optimally designed to make me think I will hate it. It is not actually a "make you jump and scream" book, although the characters sometimes jump and scream with just cause. It is a homefront WWII book with fantasy content, and it is about a very sensible young widowed nurse, and it hits all my buttons that way.

G.K. Chesterton, All Things Considered. Kindle. Oh, Crazy Uncle Gilbert. Bringing the crazy since 1874. He might not have considered all things in this essay collection, but he did consider quite a few things, and with some of them he was delightful, and with some of them he might as well have announced, "And therefore it is entirely natural that I put the guinea pig in my hair, as anyone logically would." The--wait--you what now? I mean, he has you going along great with these lovely sentences about journalism or democracy or something really pithy and then wham, he is screeblingly bazoo. It's a string of, "I love this! I love this! Wait, what? I love this! OW OH MY BRAIN."

Deborah Coates, Wide Open. Discussed elsewhere.

Jo Graham, Hand of Isis. I generally think of myself as not interested in the Classical Mediterranean, and Cleopatra? Really not my thing. But Jo Graham does such a good job that I am interested, despite doing a couple of things that are usually annoyances for me. So go Jo Graham. Will look for more of her stuff.

Barbara Hambly, Dead Water. I really felt that she turned a corner in this one. In the last volume (chronologically in the series, not the last one I read due to the library's perfidy), there was the flailing about down in Mexico, but now with this riverboat installation, I feel that she's got her footing with the direction of the rest of the series. I'm looking forward to the rest again.

Lisa Jardine, Worldly Goods: A New History of the Renaissance. This is a good idea but poorly executed not by the author but by the publisher: Jardine needs to talk about variations in pigment and what they mean to material culture, and the illustrations are tiny black-and-whites. It's just not a well-executed material object, and for a history that's about material objects, that's a very bad choice on the publisher's part. This is a case where them taking the cheap route was worse than not doing it at all.

John LeCarre, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. And this is a case where reading one of the more famous of an author's books would have served me better than one of the more obscure ones, because this is a far better example of LeCarre than I started with ten or so years ago, and might well have got me reading more LeCarre then. He's relentlessly British, and in Tinker Tailor he's being relentlessly British, and it works.

Helen MacInnes, Assignment in Brittany. First of the recommendations of women spy novelists from the post I made earlier this week. This is another interesting historical object: it's a spy novel set in WWII, written before the war was over. So you can watch it deliberately boosting homefront morale. You can also watch the uncertainties and the fears, and also the lack of self-consciousness about using ethnic slurs for the enemy; if you're looking for a long-considered view, this is not it, but it's not trying to be.

Mircea Pitici, ed., The Best Writing on Mathematics 2011. markgritter sorted through this and pointed out the essays he thought were most interesting, and he is pretty well accustomed to my tastes and not given to keeping me from interesting things, so I trusted him. Sculptors talking about algorithms: pretty much like sculptors in general and talking about their work, oof.

Richard Rhodes, The Twilight of the Bombs: Recent Challenges, New Dangers, and the Prospects for a World Without Nuclear Weapons. There was a fair amount of "Nineties, I thought I was there but uff da" in this book, but the thing that just made me shake my head was when they thought they were doing a shocking experiment in whether two newly-minted physics PhDs could build a nuclear bomb themselves, and I...could not believe anybody didn't think it was obvious that they could. And that PhDs were pretty much overkill. It's a scary world sometimes, people.

Geoff Ryman, Paradise Tales. Short stories, about as cheerful as you'd expect of Geoff Ryman. One of the things that frustrates me about the short story field is that it sometimes feels like there are people trying to be revolutionary without reading things other people have written. If your revolutionary new idea is a thing Geoff Ryman had published in 1990, it's probably not very revolutionary. Just a thought.

Andrew Taylor, The World of Gerard Mercator: The Mapmaker Who Revolutionized Geography. I came out of this book with a weird fondness for Barbe Mercator and a sense that she is one of the historical figures you don't entirely want to mess with.

Jack Vance, Rhialto the Marvelous. More Dying Earth, more unpleasant sorcerers, more Vancian Vanciness. I was glad to have read this omnibus and also glad to be done reading it.

Duncan Watts, Everything Is Obvious* (Once You Know the Answer). This was about the places in social science where our sense of common sense fails us: where a well-researched answer will look common sensical, but so will its opposite, or where the right questions aren't necessarily the ones we think they are. Of course immediately after I read this book, a friend started demonstrating one of its key behaviors: people nodding along with a study and going, "How interesting!" when it applied to other people's decision-making and then being utterly sure that their own was entirely rationally motivated. Which was silly of her. Mine, of course, is entirely rationally...wait.

Walter Jon Williams, The Fourth Wall. I was so disappointed in this book. I loved the first one in the series, and the second one was still kind of fun, but this...well. I read the Big Idea about it over on scalzi's blog, and Williams was talking about how people would rather see a particular actress on a billboard than the nerds who make the 3D mesh rendering of her. And that's great, but a book is not a billboard, and our culture already gives me ten million options for reading prose about Hollywood! movie! actors! It was kind of like reading Wil Wheaton's blog with everything interesting about Wil sucked out and replaced with shallow freak-show traits and petty narcissism. All the interesting things going on in the world were shoved into the background for this guy's life, which ultimately hinged on stuff that was the banality of evil, right there in a video clip. And sure, that's how this character would see the world--it was quite realistic. And sucked that way. While reading the book I didn't really enjoy it, but it's one of those books where the more I think about it after, the less I like it. Seriously, I cannot think of another Walter Jon Williams book I would not recommend above this book. Go read them all. Skip this one.
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