Marissa Lingen (mrissa) wrote,
Marissa Lingen
mrissa

Books read, late November.

Leigh Bardugo, Shadow and Bone. The cover of this Russianesque YA fantasy claims that it is unlike anything the person writing the blurb has ever read. She needs to get out more, because it's exactly like a ton of things I've read. The structure of it is extremely standard YA fantasy, to the point where it fit in with a conversation I'd been having about love triangles in YA and who is the likely "right choice" in them. The main character has a huuuuuge amaaaaazing magical talent that she has never developed before. Etc. It was quite readable, and I don't think that everything has to be out on the fringes of its genre/category to make it worth reading. But if you go into this thinking, "Oh, this will be really different," you are likely to be disappointed if you've read very much YA fantasy. On the other hand, if you want Another One Of Those But This Time Russian Inflected, this is not the worst you can do.

Peter S. Beagle, We Never Talk About My Brother. Short story collection. Slight overlap with stuff I've read before, but mostly it was new to me and satisfying as such. I tend to feel like I am the last person in the world to encounter anything of Peter Beagle's, so it's hard for me to figure out what to say about his short story collections, except that he has a very engaging voice, and if you happen to be the actual last person to encounter this, you should encounter it, if you're interested in short fantasy fiction.

Antonio Damasio, Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain. So I can come up with two main options here: 1) this book was more ground-breaking when he published it, and the ideas contained therein have since become pretty mainstream and known; 2) I am more informed in neurology/neuropsychology than I tend to give myself credit for and should not expect a pop neuro book to inform me much. in any case, the Spinoza aspect of it was particularly weird if you have been reading about Spinoza--it was not wrong per se, it was just not very in-depth, in some frustrating ways. "Brains, feelings! Errrr...Spinoza!" was the general impression it left with me.

Tananarive Due, Joplin's Ghost. I became much more excited about this book when I heard that it was about Scott Joplin's literal ghost rather than a metaphor about his continued influence on yadda yadda. I am not usually fond of ghost stories, but my grandfather really loved Scott Joplin, and this one had a lot of specific historical research that I enjoyed. I also liked the present-day component of the setting. I think what I keep reaching for in the description is that Due's narrative felt confident. I didn't always like the ghost story mechanics of it, but I did like the confident narrative voice.

Christopher Hayes, Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy. Hayes was starting from a premise I didn't share in the first place--that bankers and stockbrokers are thought to be the pinnacle of merit. I think his investigation of things that are trying to be meritocracies and how they succeed at that goal or fail might well have been more interesting if he'd branched out farther than the very most shallow stereotypes. Because there are other subcultures in the US that consider themselves meritocratic--academia, for example!--that don't follow the salary lines he was discussing, and trying to isolate factors in the effects he was tracing might have been nice. I mean, I agreed with him on several of the points he did make. I just didn't think he went far enough into investigating to what extent they were inevitable to all intended meritocratic systems and to what extent they were based on other factors. Nor did he propose any viable alternative I could see.

Johan Georg Kohl, Kitchi-Gami: Life Among the Lake Superior Ojibway. This is a 19th century ethnography translated from the German. The introduction notes that it is still considered interesting when many of the English language works are only of political interest because the German ethnographer was not treating Ojibwe culture as a problem to be solved. He still had a lot of Patronizing 19th Century White Dude problems, but they were fairly visible and could be worked around, and he did a lot of debunking. He was cutely careful about it, too--"X has been said about Indians, and that may be true of other Indians, but among the Ojibwe I saw no sign of X and instead saw Y positive thing," sorts of sections. He was not willing to look at all of these and say, "Wow, you people know nothing about these tribes, you just like to run your mouths." But doing the specific debunking was still pretty valuable at the time, and is interesting to watch now.

Thant Myint-U, The River of Lost Footsteps: A Personal History of Burma. I was a bit disappointed in this history of Burma. It's a lot more Anglocentric than I was hoping, and a lot more Western-centric. There are all sorts of places where he lives up to the title and gives the reader the personal when I think a more thorough grounding in the general would be of some use--particularly because Thant Myint-U is ethnically Burmese but has spent the vast majority of his life not-there. The annoying thing is that I'm not sure I'm going to get a more Burmese history of Burma. But it's still worth trying to do so. There's a lot of pre-colonial history to account for in that region of the world.

Hannu Rajaniemi, The Fractal Prince. Discussed elsewhere.

Mari Sandoz, The Buffalo Hunters. Grandpa's. This is a book that was published in the heyday of cowboy movies/TV for Americans--when the Western was still a thriving genre--and still manages to start to query some of the tropes of the Western. It's nonfiction, and some of the tropes it does not manage to query. But Mari Sandoz is at least recognizing some of the problematic stuff in that era, and she is just sickened by the wastefulness of thousands of buffalo killed for just their tongues. As in fact most readers will be, I expect.

Nate Silver, The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail--But Some Don't. This is not a bad book to give someone who hasn't got much background in probability, prediction, or risk analysis. There are some things he explains in a very straightforward way that are useful to know. There are also some examples in exhaustive detail that might be useful to people who had not really considered them before. However. One of the things that's kind of ironic is that Silver talks about known unknowns and knowing many small things...and he is not all that good at that, in this book. For example, in the introduction he tosses off a view of the Late Middle Ages that is frankly shallow, wrong, and dumb. It isn't important to his main point. But there it is, wrapped into the introduction, not fact-checked or actually addressed in any way, just a very common and very debunked stereotype of that period. And in some ways I feel like that kind of behavior is worse than if he had his main thesis wrong. People will remember that they learned things about probability and prediction, or had ideas about probability and prediction reinforced, from reading this book. They could argue with those things later, or check them consciously against later learning. But the bit about the Late Middle Ages is a spot where nobody will say, "Oh, I learned that from Nate Silver's book." It's a piece of misinformation that goes down easy, that reinforces previous misinformation if everyone involved doesn't think it matters, because they were really mostly talking about something else. And even writing about this part in a book post: anyone else who has read this book will say, "That's such a tiny point, that's not what the book is about." No. It's not what the book is about. That's the problem. And the rest of the book is kind of like that: there are bits that are shoddily produced, bits that should have had more detail and other bits that kind of go on and on, and it has the air of intellectual sloppiness, of being written in haste and then badly edited. Which doesn't make him wrong about Bayesian approaches and frequentist approaches. It just...is not the book it could be, in ways that look so fixable that it's frustrating.

Jen Van Meter, Hopeless Savages Greatest Hits 2000-2010. The genre tags I have for this are "YA punk family spy comic." I read it as part of alecaustin's and my ongoing discussion of YA and children's depictions of families that are heart-warming without being saccharine. I do wish the eldest brother had been permitted to retain his chosen identity and kick butt when needed, but we take what we can get.

Abraham Verghese, Cutting for Stone. This novel is set in Ethiopia in the '50s and '60s, and I think that its main appeal is the vividness of the setting. There are serious pacing problems and some ways in which the treatment of women is iffy beyond the factual "treatment of women sometimes iffy historically speaking" level. But there aren't that many novels available in the US that are set in Ethiopia in the '50s and '60s, written by someone knowledgeable.
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