Marissa Lingen (mrissa) wrote,
Marissa Lingen

Books read, late February.

Thomas Andrews, Killing for Coal: America's Deadliest Labor War. This is about the Ludlow Massacre of 1914, and it does a really good job of laying out all sorts of context for the reader: why coal was so important in the American Mountain West, uses of different kinds of mules, all kinds of background to put the violent labor conflict into its proper ground in history. I highly recommend this one for anyone with an interest in labor history or history of the American Mountain West, and also for general interest readers of nonfiction.

Cory Doctorow, Homeland. Discussed elsewhere.

Ursula K. LeGuin, Powers. This is the third in its series, but it doesn't depend on the other two--the overlap in characters just comes at the end. You could really read whichever of them you like. And it's really well done. It's got a slave perspective, and it explores power and trust dynamics in a slave-based society, but not in a way that gets heavy-handed. It's all integral to the premise and the characterization. Like Voices, it reads like something I loved as a child, even though it's far too new for that. I'm so glad I went past the fairly-standard Gifts and on to the next two in the series, because they are so lovely, and they feel like there ought to be a great many more things of their nature than there actually are in the genre.

Michael Lewis, Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World. Many of you have almost certainly read some of the essays that compose this book in their online/magazine form. Most of them were interesting but not particularly deep--he notes, for example, his German chauffeur's skepticism about "national character" but only to say that she is OMG So Totes German!!11!--but there were a few weird moments. And then I got to the last essay, which is about California municipal bankruptcies. Okay, quick survey: how many of you know any police officers, firefighters, or teachers? Any of the above. And how many of you know someone who got rich from one of those jobs? Because Michael Lewis just started--there were orifices involved, let's put it that way. His idea is that the problem with budgets in California is that civic employees are negotiating for salaries that are far too high, and they need to recognize that they are not going to get rich in these jobs and do them for other reasons. In pursuit of this argument, he does not do anything like bothering to look up median salaries for California firefighters and what kind of housing, food, utilities, etc. those salaries will pay for. This seems like it might be important if your main argument is that public employees of this type are trying to get "rich" from their civil service jobs. Instead, Michael Lewis lists the top salary for a government employee in California and calls it a day--without comparing that salary to what a person with similar credentials might make in the private sector, without determining how many people are clustered at the top in salaries with that person vs. how many make much, much less. He spends some anecdata on a fire chief who just loves his work and has very high standards for it, and that's awesome. That's really great. But I think there is a pretty good line between telling people, "You're not going to get rich doing this job," and, "You're not going to get comfortably lower-middle-class doing this job." And if your argument is that we should be doing the former, you should make damn sure you're not doing the latter instead. Especially, good heavens, with police officers. Put people in direct danger, put them in the way of all sorts of opportunities for graft and corruption, and then underpay them? Oh, good plan, dude. Excellent plan. There is nothing that could possibly go wrong there. You need to have police in your town. You need to have firefighters and teachers. And if you live in a town with a high cost of living, that means you need to pay them commensurately and not whine about them trying to get rich, because they have to shop at the same grocery store as you do, and they have to live in the same housing market as you do. Seriously, this is not hard stuff to check when your main point seems to be, "We need a class of civic martyrs and then all will be well." It casts the rest of his essays in the light of, shall we say, a not very careful writer. That's frustrating. Not recommended.

Sofi Oksanen, Purge. A Finnish-Estonian historical novel. This is really good stuff but about as pleasant as you might expect from a book with that title and provenance. Unless you are prepared for the sorts of horrible things people do to each other in political upheaval, including sexual violence, you might want to wait until you're in a quite stalwart mood for this one. It's still interesting, and I'm very glad I read it. I'm just...also glad I was in a pretty good mental space when I did.

Francis Spufford, Red Plenty. This was just glorious. I loved this. I don't know why anybody is saying it's not a novel--of course it's a novel. But it's a really quite good historical novel with lots of wonderful exposition. If you like the exposition best of all in Kim Stanley Robinson novels (and what else would one like best of all there, really?), this is a good thing to read. It's about Soviet Russia and people's changing attitudes therein, which makes it sound less vivid and awesome than it actually is. I picked it up when I had already bounced off three library books in one morning, and I was afraid that I was the problem. But no, this book sucked me right in. Go book.

Hugh Thomas, Conquest: Montezuma, Cortes, and the Fall of Old Mexico. This is the gigantic wrist-wrenching tome I was reading at the end of the last fortnight. I'm glad I read it--plenty of interesting stuff about the Spanish Conquest of Mexico, plus background about both cultures, the Spanish and the Mexica, to place things into context. But it really needed reading on a digital reader or else in turns with something else, because it was physically too large to be comfortable. Shallow, but there we are.

Karin Tidbeck, Jagannath: Stories. One of the things I did this week is try to explain to one of my young Swedish cousins what I feel the difference is between fantasy and science fiction, as performed in English. Since my take on this is often "write cool stuff and get over yourself," the timing of reading these stories was particularly apropos. They're translated by the author from Swedish, and they're a lot more generally in the tradition of the fantastic than they are squarely in one genre or another. And they were quite quite Swedish without falling into the gloom that sometimes pervades Swedish literature. I will want more Tidbeck when it's available.

Scott Turow, Presumed Innocent. Fairly standard-issue legal mystery of its time, predictable ending. I was warned to start later in the series if I wanted to see if it was a good series for me. I probably should have listened.
Tags: bookses precious

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