Books read, March 2023

Much less to report this month. Less reading overall, as I was very busy writing, but also I bounced off a good half-dozen books that either just didn’t hook me or were picked up for research and proved not to be nearly as useful as I’d hoped.

The Way Spring Arrives and Other Stories: A Collection of Chinese Science Fiction and Fantasy in Translation from a Visionary Team of Female and Nonbinary Creators, ed. Yu Chen and Regina Kanyu Wang, trans. various, narr. Katharine Chin. Anthologies like this are really great samplers of work you may not have encountered or, in this case, may not even have much access to. This one ranges all across the genre spectrum, from cultivation fantasy to nearly encyclopedia-style SF, with some time travel and some very understated contemporary fantasy and so on and so forth. Interspersed with these are essays on related topics, largely focused on the history of Chinese science fiction (and the roles of e.g. female authors or the webnovel format in that history) or else on the challenges and choices of translation. Scattering them throughout is probably a good move from the standpoint of convincing more people to read/listen to them — grouped together at the front or the back, there might be more temptation to skip — but it did give me a bit of mental whiplash, since I was listening to the audiobook in situations where I didn’t want to pause it and go do something else while waiting for my brain to shift from fiction mode to nonfiction mode. I may very well pick this up in print, in part because it would help me to see in written form the names that went speeding by in audio. (Novels at least give you a while to familiarize yourself with the names; short fiction — even long-ish stories/novelettes, which many of these are — much less so.)

Digging Up the Past, Leonard Woolley. Eheheheheeeee. This is probably not so funny if you weren’t an archaeology major, but whee, blast from the past! Woolley originally published this book in 1930, though this is a later, updated edition. I read it because I have two separate story ideas that would both involve archaeology of roughly this era, and my god, Woolley delivered exactly what I needed to my door — and some things I didn’t know I needed.

For the former, I specifically mean details on how digs of the era were run, when it was common to have huge numbers of relatively unskilled laborers on site. Woolley goes into everything from how those laborers are organized into small gangs and compensated for what they find to how to decide where to dig (in an era where you didn’t have things like magnetometry to guide your decisions). He also scatters about all kinds of anecdotal gems of the sort I totally want to work into one of these stories if I can. And it’s a salutary reminder to me of how the culture-historians thought in the days when the only way you could get absolute dating was if a date was literally written on some artifact you found, i.e. before the advent of carbon dating.

. . . and then there are the bits you cringe at. Like the whiffs of racism coming off half the things Woolley says about Arab workmen, or — very different flavor of cringe — when he opines that honestly, it would be a great loss to art but no loss to archaeology if a museum were to collapse into rubble, because by that point archaeologists have extracted all the information they can and the artifact is now superfluous. Hahahahah no, sir, not in the slightest. Please tell me you never threw anything out on those grounds.

Return of the Trickster, Eden Robinson. Finale of its trilogy; my thoughts on the first book and the second book

This one, oof. It very nearly reads as one ongoing narrative climax, with stuff blowing up from page one. And it gets extremely dark, with Quite a Lot of Gruesome Torture. After going through that, I wanted way more than two measly pages of denouement — especially when said denouement is just a flat summary of what happens to the various characters afterward. If somebody is about to spend the next year in trauma therapy, it would be nice to give them — and the reader! — a gentler off-ramp than “okay, all the murdering is done now; you’re free to go.” This felt a lot more brutal than the earlier books (and to be clear, they were often not nice). I’m not sorry I read it, but if this had been the tone from the start, I probably would not have read the whole series.

Come, Tell Me How You Live, Agatha Christie Mallowan. Yes, that Agatha Christie — presumably the “Mallowan” was included here to help advertise to her readers that this was not one of her mystery novels.

Instead it’s her account of going with her archaeologist husband to Syria from 1935 to 1937, where they excavated several prehistoric tells (well, her husband excavated; she assisted with finds and apparently was writing a novel for at least part of that time). Parts of it are hilarious; parts are, to no one’s surprise, mildly to cringingly racist; there is one utterly inexcusable comment about the Armenian genocide. It is very full of useful details about life on a dig of that sort, and also of travel in that period — less the logistics (though some of that) and more the lived experience, about everything from obtaining clothes for the trip to sharing a very luggage-filled train compartment with someone you share absolutely no language with to realizing you’ve worn your shoes down unevenly because you’re always circling a tell in the same direction while looking for surface finds. It’s less useful on the archaeology front than the Woolley book was — which is unsurprising as Christie was not an archaeologist — but that’s fine; I need both things.

Digging Up Armageddon: The Search for the Lost City of Solomon, Eric H. Cline. Modern book this time, but focused on the same general period. Cline’s subject is the “Chicago excavators,” i.e. the rolling series of archaeologists from the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute — renamed just yesterday, now the Institute for the Study of Ancient Cultures, West Asia & North Africa — who worked at the tell of Megiddo (a.k.a. Har Megiddo, a.k.a. Armageddon) from 1925 until World War II: both the work they did and what it uncovered, and the parade of personality conflicts and other bits of social drama that drove a fair bit of the turnover in staff during that time.

Tell excavation is fascinating! Well, it is if you’re me. A tell is an artificial mound built up, not deliberately, but through centuries and millennia of occupation, depositing strata like a layer cake. The Chicago excavators spent years methodically stripping one entire layer after another off Megiddo — which is so not how anybody would do it now — before finally switching to trenches that cut cross-sections through the mound. Tragically, neither of my two story ideas involve a tell, so I can’t really make use of that aspect in my fiction, but it was fun to read about. As for the personality conflicts, hoo boy. I mean, it’s sort of inevitable when you have people living in the middle of nowhere with only a handful of peers to talk to (unsurprisingly, they didn’t socialize much with their Egyptian and Palestinian workers), but even so. I got a ton of valuable information off this about dig management (and mismanagement), which I will absolutely put to use.

Worrals Carries On, W.E. Johns. Second of its series, fiction from the 1940s about a female W.A.A.F. pilot in World War II. These are delightful little snack books: I demolished this one in about two hours, I think, and it was exactly the sort of easy and exciting read I wanted. Once again, Worrals uncovers a Nazi spy, but this time she winds up staging the evacuation of some trapped British military personnel from France. The titles for these books are largely so bland that I can already tell I’m likely to have difficulty remembering which is which, but my mnemonic for this one is that the rescuees are her carry-on baggage for the flight home!

Brain Games for Blocked Writers: 81 Tips to Get You Unstuck, Yoon Ha Lee. A short book that’s exactly what it says, a set of (brief) suggestions or exercises that might help jar your brain loose when you’re stuck on the book you’re currently writing. Some of them are about plotting, others about brainstorming on your characters or your worldbuilding; they’re deliberately intended to be zany and off-the-wall rather than the systematic approaches another book might suggest, specifically for people who maybe don’t have much luck with being systematic. Many of them include personal anecdotes leading up to the suggestion itself, which gives it all a conversational tone. Whether or not I will ever try any of the exercises, who knows, but it was fun to read. And I get mentioned in it, which was an unexpected surprise!

(Confidential to Yoon: I almost didn’t use that Battletech track, precisely because it comes from so very much the wrong genre! But I was having trouble finding something with the right mood and contour for the scene in question . . .)

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