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

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Books read, late December. [Jan. 2nd, 2013|05:33 pm]
Marissa Lingen

Madison Smartt Bell, Lavoisier in the Year One: The Birth of a New Science in an Age of Revolution. This is mostly about the transition from alchemy to chemistry and the stuff that Lavoisier and his peers did to get to what we recognize as chemistry. It was really good in that regard. If you were hoping that a Lavoisier-centered book would make his death in the Terror make more sense, it didn't, really. I mean, yes, the guy had tax farmed for awhile, but a lot of people did that. It really does mostly look like the people in that phase of the French Revolution were saying, "Someone we've heard of! Kill him!"

Marie Brennan (swan_tower), Lies and Prophecy. Kindle. I waited awhile to read this partly because I am still not very good at thinking of my Kindle as part of my to-read pile and partly because the "teaser" material hit me in two weird ways. One is that I don't like serialization. Period. Ever. So a thing that's a really good advertisement for a book for most other people will put me off even when it's an author I know I like. The other factor was that I knew it was set at a small college in Minnesota, and I knew that swan_tower didn't go to one of those, and I get skittish when I feel like there's a risk that one of my friends is going to get stuff wrong that's in my immediate field of interest/knowledge. Well, I don't feel she did get it wrong, and the teasers were very much extras: enjoyable for people who like that sort of thing but not vital to enjoying the book for those who don't. (I think it helped for me that what swan_tower was serializing as a "teaser" was not the beginning of the book itself, so I didn't have to additionally overcome, "Yeah, yeah, I tried reading this before and bounced because it was a serial.") The thing about the setting is that it's only as detailed as it needs to be--it's not trying to wallow in Minnesota small private college nature, so nothing cued my nitpicky nature. As for the book itself, it was not as assured as her more recent work, but it was still a fun college fantasy. I want more college fantasies. And I liked the quartet of major characters, too.

G.K. Chesterton, The Trees of Pride. Kindle. This is a short novel or possibly even a novella, with a nominally mystery plot. It contains a few of the ways in which Chesterton can be obnoxious but not most; on the other hand, it didn't contain very many of his pithier moments, either. The twist ending struck me as trying rather too hard to be twisty, but it didn't take that much of my time/energy to get there.

Kate Elliott, Cold Fire. Second in a series. Even more romance-influenced than the first. I had fun with the big fat fantasy aspects, but the parts of it that were more romance-influenced were not really my cup of tea. Who could have called that.

Jaine Fenn, Downside Girls. A chapbook of linked-ish short stories. I enjoyed them, but I felt like none of them went beyond the obvious thing to do with the premise, and I had hopes that the author could do so. Maybe with some more short stories in that world.

Nina Kiriki Hoffman, Permeable Borders. An incredibly mixed bag. Some stories I liked. Some I didn't really think worked as stories per se. A few were problematic in gender/sexual violence directions, although I have come to expect that of any group of short stories in this century (sigh).

Jonathan I. Israel, Enlightenment Contested: Philosophy, Modernity, and the Emancipation of Man, 1670-1752. I have been reading this for months in sips and bits at a time, because it is so large. I don't mean that it was mentally daunting, although it's a big dense philosophical history. I mean that it should have been published in hardbound so that it would stay open without being held open. The trade paperback format for nearly 900 pages of actual book (with endnotes etc. after that) was just not physically comfortable. The book was very cool, though, and I look forward to the third in the series...when my wrists and neck are a bit rested.

Christopher Kemp, Floating Gold: A Natural (& Unnatural) History of Ambergris. I can honestly tell you that this is the best book on whale crap I read all year. Nothing else in 2012 even comes close. It's a delightful mix of oceanography, perfumery, 18th and 19th century trade history, and...stuff. Definitely stuff. Mrissish stuff. It also prompted one of the worst puns I've ever seen coming and made anyway at the dinner table. I'm only human.

Mark Edward Lewis, The Early Chinese Empires: Qin and Han. A good introduction. This is the sort of book that will either ground you in early Chinese Imperial history or else nudge you into realizing that you were more grounded than you thought.

John McWhorter, The Power of Babel. The evolution of language; dialects, pidgins, and creoles. markgritter and I both read it and have been poking at various linguistic markers ever since.

Vilhelm Moberg, The Settlers. Grandpa's. I see why these books are so popular with Scandinavian-Americans, because holy crud wow, my relatives are on every other page. Not my literal relatives, but still. The scene where the woman tells off the nosy pious neighbors? That is so my grandmother. It was delightful to me in that way, even though it was still a Swedish literary novel and thus full of gloom and woe. It makes me look forward to the last one in the series, even though I'm pretty sure that men die, cattle die, and even the gods themselves must one day die. That's just how we do.

E. Nesbit, The Rainbow and the Rose. Kindle. Good heavens, don't read this. Unless you are a gigantic E. Nesbit completist or a fan of indifferent Edwardian poetry, this is not the thing. This is what happens when a reasonably talented and literate person sits down and says, "I should write a poem. I know how poems go and what they're about! I'll do one like that!" (I don't know if that's actually what did happen. It's entirely possible that this is the fruit of her heart's inspiration. But it reads like rote poetry in Now I Write A Poem mode.) And the other Nesbit is so much fun, and there's good Edwardian poetry, so...yeah. Seriously, most people should give this one a miss.

Michaela Roessner, Walkabout Woman. Kindle. There is a fine line to walk between "this book is set in a culture with many speech taboos" and "this is an idiot plot." Also the structure of it was very weird. We don't get very many fantasy novels about Australia, so it was cool to have in that sense, but a bit self-contradictory: Roessner had clearly done a ton of research into aboriginal Australian cultures, but on the other hand, my understanding is that what that research says is that they are not so keen on this kind of book being written, on average. So lots of fine lines walked here.

Oliver Sacks, Hallucinations. I am very disappointed in the reviews of this book. If you paid attention to the reviewers, you would think that the book was mainly about Sacks's drug experiences in the '60s. And honestly, that was a very short and not at all sensationalist chapter. I thought there was a lot more interesting stuff in it when he was talking about otherwise healthy and sane people who are not on drugs and who happen to have various kinds of hallucinations. That's an aspect of hallucinations that I had not mostly read about, and this was an interesting exploration of it. (One note, though: he spends very little time on olfactory stuff, which frustrated me, and it boggled me that he claimed that most people can't imagine smells. What do you mean, can't imagine smells? I don't understand. It's just like imagining sights only easier. The other monkeys are very confusing sometimes.)

Johanna Sinisalo, Birdbrain. This was short, and I was glad, because I spent the entire time wanting to kick Jyrki, and he was one of the two main characters. The speculative element was very subtle, so mostly the reading experience here is the camping/exploration tales of two Finns, one of them annoying. And a lot of quotes from Joseph Conrad. I like to stay up on Finnish speculative lit, so I'm not sorry I read this, but I don't recommend it generally unless the poser guy who's always somewhere around REI does not annoy you.

Mark Twain, The Complete Short Stories of Mark Twain. Grandpa's. Boy howdy, was this complete. If you were ever reading a shorter collection of Twain stories and said to yourself, "But what if I'm missing a hidden gem?", I can set your mind at rest. You were not missing a hidden gem. The better-known stories are better-known for a reason. Also there is nothing so sentimental as a sentimentalist who has convinced himself that he's a cynic.

Oscar Wilde, The Duchess of Padua. Kindle. If you ever said to yourself, "Well, the plots of Jacobean drama make sense, I just want a few Oscar Wilde language things thrown in," then this is the play for you. If not, um. I can see why this is not produced very often, because it's fine enough, but it seems to fall between categories of what people look for to round out a theater season.

Walter Jon Williams, Investments. Kindle. This is a novella in the Dread Empire's Fall universe, focusing on Martinez. Its strengths and its weaknesses were sort of the same: it had more focus than the Dread Empire's Fall novels, but less scope. I think I would enjoy a pile of novellas of this type as much as or more than one novel, so...why don't the rest of you all go buy Investments so WJW becomes convinced of the soundness of this plan and I can have that pile instead of just the one novella that doesn't do as much as I got accustomed to this series doing due to being a novella. Okay, thanks, guys. Much appreciated.

[User Picture]From: rachelmanija
2013-01-02 11:43 pm (UTC)
I did not know that Sacks had a book on hallucinations! Did he talk at all about hallucinations experienced by non-drugged, non-psychotic people? Like, hearing the voices of dead relatives or God when that's part of your culture, hearing helpful command voices in dangerous situations, hearing your name called, etc?

I am a little reluctant on the Williams novella because I loved Sula but found Martinez kind of boring. But I would like to support him writing more in the world...
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[User Picture]From: rachelmanija
2013-01-02 11:44 pm (UTC)
ETA: Okay, I somehow skipped a line. Obviously, the answer is yes.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2013-01-02 11:46 pm (UTC)
It is, and I found those bits interesting and wish the reviewers had talked about them more.

He even talked a bit about dysosmia, which I had for several months. So it's a pretty broad umbrella.
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From: arkessian
2013-01-03 09:43 am (UTC)
A pile of Walter Jon Williams novellas in the Dread Empire's Fall universe would be a very fine thing.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2013-01-03 02:53 pm (UTC)
There were a few other things that made me wince or curl my lip, but the big one was in "Strikes of the Heart," where the multiple rapes turn out to all be a woman's fault for wanting grandkids and the guys who did the raping totally could not help themselves. If you're going to use an actual real-world rape apologetic in magical terms, I think there are better ways of handling it than just going on blithely as though, "Oh, he couldn't help himself!" was in some way a new line, special for magic settings. And if the men in question were magically compelled, then they also are rape victims, and nobody in the story acts like that either. And then there's the "thank God we could come up with a loophole because otherwise we would totally have to kick you out of the service for getting raped and pregnant, go us for loopholes!" thing. The entire story made me gag. Which was a shame, because "Granny's losing her wits but still is incredibly magically powerful" is a story I would like to see handled well at some point.
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[User Picture]From: sam_t
2013-01-03 06:15 pm (UTC)
"Granny's losing her wits but still is incredibly magically powerful" pinged something for me and I've just realised I was thinking of The Pinhoe Egg. Which you've doubtless come across already.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2013-01-03 07:33 pm (UTC)
Yes, but thank you.
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[User Picture]From: tool_of_satan
2013-01-03 03:39 pm (UTC)
If you were ever reading a shorter collection of Twain stories and said to yourself, "But what if I'm missing a hidden gem?", I can set your mind at rest. You were not missing a hidden gem.

You are so very right.

The one new to me story I found interesting when I read this, I found interesting as a cautionary tale rather than as a story. I don't remember the title (I read the collection years ago), but it involves people going into raptures over simply hearing other people speaking. At first I could not figure out what the heck Twain was on about, but after a bit I realized - it's a story about the telephone. The thing is, no one has reacted like that to telephones since approximately a month after they became available, if ever.
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[User Picture]From: columbina
2013-01-03 04:38 pm (UTC)
You have led me to go look up ambergris, since I had been thinking it was more in the line of whale puke than whale poop. (Apparently it can sometimes be emitted via the former method but is more often emitted via the latter. Live and learn.)

I agree with your conclusions about Twain.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2013-01-03 05:34 pm (UTC)
It gets reported as whale puke a lot, but this author was somewhat annoyed by that.

It is also fairly frequently emitted by the whale dying and decomposing, but nobody really wants to talk about that either.
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[User Picture]From: carbonel
2013-01-04 02:16 am (UTC)
John McWhorter is the lecturer for a DVD-based course on human language that I'm two-thirds of the way through. He's an excellent speaker. That would be true even if he didn't talk about cats from time to time. It makes a very fine follow-on to the audio course on the English language that Michael Drout delivered.

After that, I have McWhorter's linguistics course to watch. Pat WINOLJ and I went in on the purchase of the double set.
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From: diatryma
2013-01-04 04:44 am (UTC)
Oh for heaven's sake. Even I can imagine smells. It's just more obvious that they're in my head instead of in my nose than colors are. Except colors are in my eyes.
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[User Picture]From: zalena
2013-01-06 03:33 pm (UTC)
BTW - I read Inside the Victorian Home this month and loved it. This has been on my list for a long time, but it was your mention of it that made me willing to take the plunge. You were right. Well worth the read even for persons not particularly interested in Victorian England.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2013-01-06 04:20 pm (UTC)
I'm so glad!
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