Books read, late November and December 2017

Witches Abroad, Terry Pratchett. Continuing my desultory wander through the Discworld books. This one was about fairy tales, which entertained my folkloric brain, and about the nature of stories, which I inevitably eat up with a spoon. I’m not sure the attempt to work in voodoo-style magic was entirely successful, but I do appreciate that it was there.

Vassa in the Night, Sarah Porter. So, you can generally separate urban fantasies into closed (only a few people know about the magic stuff) and open (everybody knows about the magic stuff). This book . . . laughs in the face of that separation. It is a world where people don’t admit to the existence of magic, but also don’t bat an eye at the fact that there’s a store called BY’s that dances on chicken legs and kneels down for you to enter when you sing their advertising jingle and if you’re caught shoplifting, the proprietor will decapitate you and stick your head on a spike in the parking lot. They may complain about the fact that the city’s health inspectors don’t do anything about the rotting heads, but they never question the underlying premise. Which makes for a very weird narrative dynamic — but not an unsuccessful one, if you can go along with it. So: a retelling of Vasilisa the Beautiful with a very damaged protagonist and a lot of family issues to sort out. Recommended if you like that kind of thing.

Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World’s Largest Museum, Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino. Nonfiction about the Getty Museum and its history of buying black market antiquities (which makes it clear that the Getty is FAR from the only museum with this problem; it’s just one of the few to face prosecution as a result.) In many ways the content was intensely frustrating, because it’s this whole sequence of “well, you’re an improvement on your predecessor, but AUGH could you stop it already with your own problems.” The second guy in charge of acquisitions at least wasn’t committing blatant tax fraud? But he bought wholesale into the narrative that museums weren’t feeding the black market, they were nobly rescuing artifacts that would otherwise vanish into private collections. And then his successor, Marion True, showed a remarkable ability to talk out of both sides of her mouth on the matter, simultaneously championing better practices while also turning a deliberate blind eye to all the things she was warning against. I really don’t know what to make of her, because she genuinely did lead the charge to improve things at a time when everybody else was still talking out of only one side of their mouth (the one excusing it all), but at the same time, ye gods, the hypocrisy. She’s the one person who basically refused to talk to the book’s authors, which contributes to the ambiguity of “what the hell were you thinking?”

Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth: Her Stories and Hymns from Sumer, Diane Wolkstein and Samuel Noah Kramer. A collection of texts related to Inanna, including her descent into the underworld, the death of Dumuzi, etc. Interestingly, it includes not only the scholarly translation and notes on same, but more speculative and personal theorizing on the meaning of the texts. This sometimes wanders close to the edge of New Age territory, but not, I think, in a way that leaves the evidence behind.

Redeemer, C.E. Murphy. I may make a blog post about urban fantasies and their settings with this and The Coroner’s Lunch as my exemplar texts, because if you asked me, do you want to read a novel about an organization of demon hunters and the young woman with an inborn gift for defeating demons, I’d yawn. Doesn’t matter how interesting your approach to the cosmology of demons and their slaying is; I’ve just read too much of that for it to hold much interest anymore. But when you take that story and set it directly after WWII, where your protagonist is literally named Rosie and worked in a factory riveting airplanes together, and she’s worried about losing her job and the independence it gave her because all the men are coming home and reclaiming the workplace, and the love triangle happens because she hasn’t seen her boyfriend in three years and they’ve both been massively changed by their wartime experiences and the other guy in the triangle is grappling with the fact that he was sent home early after trashing his leg for life . . . now I’m interested. Because now you’re showing me something new, something I haven’t read or watched a dozen times before.

The Assimilated Cuban’s Guide to Quantum Santeria, Carlos Hernandez. Short story collection. I received it as a Christmas present and finished it about two days later, which is a good sign. These stories mostly feature Cuban-American protagonists and freely mix science-fictional ideas with more magical realist material. I found it helpful to keep Google Translate open on my tablet while I read, not because you have to know what all the Spanish means, but because I liked to add that context where my own remembered vocabulary fell short. My favorite story was probably “More Than Pigs and Rosaries Can Give,” about a man going back to Cuba in an attempt to find and speak to the ghost of his mother, who died heroically during the Cuban Revolution, except that I feel like the story cut out early, going for the funny ending line rather than closure. Fair warning, though: these stories feature quite a lot of dead mothers, and also one story that, while hilariously funny (it literally made me laugh out loud more than once), can be read in a kind of disturbing dubious-consent light.

The Night Orchid: Conan Doyle in Toulouse, Jean-Claude Dunyach, trans. various. I’ve been meaning to read this for ages, ever since I met Jean-Claude Dunyach at Imaginales in France (he’s the one who provided me with ebooks of this and another collection). Although his afterword says that he writes science fiction because he thinks the world is a wonderful place, many of these stories are pretty bleak: there’s a lot of stuff about memory and its loss, alienation of both the psychological and literally “aliens from outer space” sort, and hackers or AIs who have thoroughly lost comprehension of the world of the flesh. The most cheerful story is probably the title piece, which is a very nineteenth-century tale featuring Arthur Conan Doyle’s character Professor Challenger and a beast that likes opera.

These last two titles in my year’s reading made me realize: I do much better with single-author collections than I do with anthologies. There’s generally (though not always) more of a unified feel to them, which tells me that despite what I might think, I apparently respond more to authorial voice than to subject matter when it comes to keeping my attention focused on a single book.

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