Books read, September-October 2021

Sal and Gabi Fix the Universe, Carlos Hernandez. Sequel to Sal and Gabi Break the Universe, and still very fun. My only complaint was that the resolution of the conflict with the antagonist felt a bit too abrupt; it hinged on something that hadn’t really been set up enough for my taste. Still, I’ll forgive a lot for a book that feels as good-hearted as this.

100 Plants That Almost Changed the World, Chris Beardshaw. Got this on vacation in Solvang, as part of my intermittent crusade to make myself more knowledgeable about the natural world. It’s of the same vague genre as things like Around the World in 100 Trees, only less well-researched than that one; I’m fairly sure it indiscriminately reports some folklore as if it were scientific fact. But it’s a breezy little read, and anything that helps me remember that different plants, y’know, exist, is a helpful book for me.

A Cultural History of Civil Examinations in Late Imperial China, Benjamin A. Elman. So I basically spent almost all of September reading this damn thing. It’s over 600 pages — over 800 if I included the end-notes, which I did not wade through — and frankly, most of those 600 pages were not really about things I needed to know. But parts of it are things I need to know, and I was never quite sure when one of those would pop up, so I waded on. I did give myself permission to skim any paragraph that had at least three numerical percentages in it, though, because “let’s do statistical analysis of civil examination results” appears to be a favorite pastime of the kinds of historians who write about the topic.

Scales and Sensibility, Stephanie Burgis. After making it through that, I needed something lighter. Like this, a Regency romance with dragons in it! I expected it to give me Lady Trent feels; I did not expect it to simultaneously give me Rook and Rose feels, but it did. The main character inadvertently winds up in a situation where she’s having to con everybody, and watching her frantically trying to keep those balls in the air was entertaining.

The Art of Description: World into Word, Mark Doty. I can’t remember where I saw this book mentioned, but I picked it up in the hopes that it would give me useful thoughts about, well, the art of description. Alas, it only intermittently did so, in part because it’s mostly concerned with description in poetry. And while there are some applicable lessons across the border into prose fiction, it’s not quite the same thing.

Sharing the Skies: Navajo Astronomy, Nancy C. Maryboy and David Begay. This was about 1/3rd the book I wanted it to be, and since it’s only 85 pages, it felt more like a taster of the topic than a full pour. The other 2/3rds are about the more familiar Greek constellation myths for comparison (with one howler of an error: Hera is not the Roman name for the Greek goddess Cassiopeia), and about modern scientific astronomy. I understand wanting the comparisons, but dangit, I’m here for Navajo astronomy! On the other hand, it’s entirely possible I know why there wasn’t more. Early on in this book it mentions that traditionally, star lore is passed down orally, with the tales only being told during the winter months, roughly October to February. (I started reading this in July, after I picked it up at the Grand Canyon; I hit that line, remembered that detail from my college or grad school days, and put the book down until October.) So basically, there’s a reason not to write more information up in a book that any random person could pick up whenever they like. Still, the taster was enough to make me wish I had more.

The Glass Magician, Caroline Stevermer. A quick-reading historical fantasy, based on the life of Dell O’Dell, a female stage magician in the early twentieth century. The setting was interesting, but I wound up feeling very distanced from the moments of strong emotion, so it never really hooked me.

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