Books read lately
I’ve fallen out of not only posting about my reading here, but (for a while) even logging it. So this is what I’ve read in the last three or so months, minus whatever I’ve forgotten.
It’s very nonfiction-heavy. I went on a kick of that recently, in part because I realized . . . when I was in college and graduate school, my classes regularly exposed me to a motley assortment of cultures and time periods, based either on what sounded interesting to me when I was picking my schedule, or what happened to be the professor’s area of specialty in the case of the more generalized requirements. But as I finished up my coursework, I began writing the Onyx Court books — my home Ph.D. in English history — followed by the Memoirs, which weren’t as narrowly focused, but were still purpose-driven. Isabella’s going to Polynesia; I’m going to read about Polynesia. Now she’s going to the Middle East; I’m going to read about the Middle East. I only read about things I needed to know, not things I didn’t need but might unexpectedly make use of four years from now when an idea pops into my head.
I need the grab-bag approach. It’s a necessary part of building the mental compost heap from which new stories sprout. So lately I’ve been pulling random books off the shelf, deliberately ricocheting around just to get some fresh material into my brain.
The Secret Lives of Color, Kassia St. Clair. Bought as a present for a friend; I shamelessly read it before giving it to her. After a brief introduction that touches on how much more arbitrary our color systems are than we think (the Greeks thought of color as a spectrum from white to black; yellow was a type of white, and blue was a type of black, with green and red as “middle” colors), and ditto our associations (is blue a cool color or a hot one? Really hot flame is blue . . .), it starts working its way through an assortment of specific color shades, talking about the chemistry of how those pigments were made, or the historical associations they had, or whatever else seems interesting. I didn’t realize that some historical pigments were chemically reactive with each other, so that the Old Masters had to plan out their compositions in a way that kept them from coming into contact. I also didn’t know that there was a massive medieval feud between the madder (red) and woad (blue) manufacturers, such that in madder-production areas hell and the Devil were depicted as blue. If that kind of thing sounds interesting to you, then this is your kind of book!
Storm of Locusts, Rebecca Roanhorse. One of only two novels in this post. Sequel to Trail of Lightning, and I reviewed it for the New York Journal of Books. The tl;dr is that I still like the series, though I feel it veered into more standard-issue post-apocalyptic territory with some of what lies outside Dinétah; I very much liked the direction it took at the end, offering a hint that things may not be going in an entirely grim direction.
Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town, Mary Beard. Started reading this literally years ago, got interrupted, and went back when I realized I was craving nonfiction. Beard is an excellent scholar and a very readable writer of nonfiction for a popular audience, which is not as easy to find as you might hope. This collates a lot of fine-grained information about what we do and don’t know about life in Pompeii, not just at the time of the eruption but in the centuries it was occupied before then. One-way streets! Somebody analyzed wear patterns on the cobblestones and realized there was a system of one-way streets in some parts of the city! If that kind of thing sounds interesting to you, ditto ditto the above.
The Roman Guide to Slave Management: A Treatise by Nobleman Marcus Sidonius Falx, Jerry Toner. Meta-nonfiction, in that this purports to be a modern-style business book written by a Roman slaveholder. I got it in the dealer’s room at some con — I forget which — because most of what I know about slavery is the American kind, and I want to know more about other ways it’s operated in other times and places. Roman slavery of course could be quite brutal, but what’s interesting about it is that it wasn’t race-based in the way we think of today: way more slaves were manumitted (though certainly not all of them), and if they acculturated to Roman life and values then they faced relatively few barriers afterward, compared to freedmen in the U.S., because how they behaved was more important than their ancestry.
Khubilai Khan: His Life and Times, Morris Rossabi. This is one of only two books about the Mongols that we have on our shelf, and the other one turns out to be a collection of primary sources, which I suspect is not a great place to start if what you know about the Mongols already wouldn’t fill a thimble. This is a biography focused on Khubilai (Kubla) Khan, and because much of his life involves ruling China, it’s actually not a great window on Mongolian life: I learned way more about Chinese values and customs of that time period than Mongol ones, except insofar as the latter were contrasted with the former. I welcome recommendations for good books about the Mongols and their culture.
Daughters of the Earth: The Lives and Legends of American Indian Women, Carolyn Niethammer. This is way less vaporous than I feared when I read the cover copy, which talks about “the life of the Native American woman” as if there’s such a single, unified entity. In fact, Niethammer is absolutely scrupulous about noting which tribes her examples come from — often to the level of “this is how the Jicarilla Apache did it, and this is how the Chiricahua Apache handled the same thing” — and moderately good about noting the fact that things changed over time, rather than presenting them as eternally so. It’s generally organized as a life sequence from birth to childhood to puberty to married life to death, taking time to discuss labor, sex (including lesbianism), leadership roles, etc. Within that framework, it is an absolute PILE of examples, which has the effect of illustrating how wildly different the approaches to the same issue can be — i.e the exact opposite of some single, unified “Native American woman” who stands for everybody female in the continent of North America. So: vastly better than I feared it would be.
The Book of the Hakutaku: A Bestiary of Japanese Monsters, Matthew Meyer. Third in his series of yōkai collections. At this point he’s hit many of the famous and not-so-famous creatures, so now he’s going farther afield into things I wouldn’t normally have thought of as yōkai — like the Chinese guardians of the directions — and also weird shit like the inner creatures thought to cause various diseases. Which I am all in favor of, because it isn’t like the category has firm boundaries to begin with, and learning about more things at or over the edge is good.
The Princess Bride Roleplaying Game, Steffan O’Sullivan. I backed this on Kickstarter because the movie was a formative experience for me, and also because this was my first introduction to the Fate/Fudge family of game systems, which I might use to run something someday. Having read through this book, I think it is sadly not as well-constructed as a game as it could be, and there’s quite a few editing errors. But my copy is very pretty and did I mention I adore the movie?
The Vanished Library: A Wonder of the Ancient World, Luciano Canfora. This . . . did not really work for me. I understand that we actually know very little about the Library of Alexandria, and a lot of what we “know” is actually later accretions of legend. But this book reminds me of when I have to write a pitch for novel series, and I fill it with piles of information about the setting and the characters’ backgrounds to hide the fact that I have very little idea what I’m doing with the later plot. Canfora spends a LOT of time talking about the Ramesseum — like, really really a lot — which as near as I can tell is entirely to establish that he thinks the “library” there was not a dedicated room but rather the shelves that existed in other rooms, and he thinks the same was true of the Library of Alexandria. And he goes into all the detail about how Cleopatra met Caesar, when the relevance of Caesar to this whole thing is that Canfora believes what burned in 48 B.C. was not the Library (which there’s no reason to think was near the docks) but rather books warehoused for export. There were whole stretches where he digressed into the theological debates a later Christian had with one of the Muslims in control of Alexandria, or similarly tangential-at-best topics. I mean, I walked away from this with an idea for a novel, so it has that going for it? But for such a short book, it still contained very little that felt to me like it was pertinent.
Dragon Pearl, Yoon Ha Lee. (Disclosure: the author is a friend.) Another from the Rick Riordan Presents imprint, and my favorite so far. It contains many of the same elements and concerns that show up in the Machineries of Empire series, but middle grade, so, waaaaaay less dark. It also contains much less of what was slightly grating to me in the other two I’ve read. I think partly that’s because the main character this time isn’t the half-mortal child of a god — instead she’s a gumiho, a fox spirit — and also the setting, which is full-bore science fantasy with interplanetary colonies and also the captain of the spaceship is a tiger shapeshifter, meant there wasn’t the “oh my god, what if the kids at school make fun of me” kind of fretting that I have trouble sympathizing with, and much more of “I need to clear my brother’s name because I don’t believe he committed treason.” (To be clear: that doesn’t mean the others are bad books. I recognize that I am three to four times the age of the target audience for these.) I loved this for the Korea! In! Spaaaaace!-ness of it, and the willingness to just smash science fiction and fantasy together until fun plot falls out.
Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio, Pu Songling, trans. John Minford. Recommended ages ago by Larry Hammer. It’s sort of a literary folklore collection from the eighteenth century (or at least a selection thereof; Minford didn’t translate the entire thing). If you read it all in one go there does start to be a degree of repetition — you can see the fox spirits coming a mile off, and oh look, yet another dead body just sat up and said “hi, I’m a ghost who has come back to life; pardon me while I go be with the man I love.” But then there are random things that are totally not like that at all. And the longer stories are often quite poignant, as they get deeper into the characters and complexity of plot.
The Murdered Magicians: The Templars and Their Myth, Peter Partner. A relatively short book, of which the first half is a sober look at what we actually know about the medieval Templars and why they were disbanded, and the second half is an increasingly scathing account of how we got from that to the wild-ass conspiracy theories that exist today. Features statements such as “the best guardian of eighteenth-century German Masonic secrets was the vile prose in which most of them were expressed” and “there were plenty of radicals who were untroubled by any great burden of knowledge about the Middle Ages.” Even the footnotes get snarky: “The list of Hammer’s absurdities is endless,” and then later, “Legman dedicated his book to the memory of Joseph Hammer, but I could not find much evidence that he had read him.”
Werner’s Nomenclature of Colors, Adapted to Zoology, Botany, Chemistry, Mineralogy, Anatomy, and the Arts, P. Syme. Looping back around to color! This is a very brief book that reproduces a guide used by Charles Darwin, among other nineteenth-century scientists, to attempt to standardize how they described the colors of things. Unfortunately, the introduction says it can only closely approximate the shade of the swatches used to illustrate the different colors, and I rather suspect the approximation in some places is not very close at all. (Either that, or the lemons back then had something seriously wrong with them.)
Around the World in 80 Trees, Jonathan Drori, illustrated by Lucille Clerc. This, on the other hand, was gorgeous. Marissa Lingen recommended it, and when it showed up in a catalogue from the Folio Society of books by other publishers, my husband and I got it. (Along with Werner’s Nomenclature and, um, way too many other books.) It’s sort of the tree equivalent to the St. Clair book this list started with: accounts of eighty different tree species that Drori finds interesting, with lovely illustrations, and observations about their use and their cultural significance and how their biology works. I may know even less about trees than I do about the Mongols — seriously, in the middle of reading this book I said, “oh, is that one what’s growing next to our driveway?” — so this was lots of mostly-new information, and entertainingly presented.