Dec 20 2019

Nobody Leaves by Ryszard Kapuscinski

Before he became a famous foreign correspondent, Ryszard Kapuściński wrote a series of astonishing dispatches for the weekly newspaper Polityka from Poland’s small towns and backwaters. Poland in 1959 still bore many visible scars of the war that had ravaged it a decade and a half previous. With Stalin’s death in 1953 the worst excesses of Soviet Communism had begun to recede, but the violent suppression of a workers’ uprising in Poznan in 1956 had shown the limits of politics within the so-called workers’ and peasants’ state.

Nobody Leaves

Kapuściński was by no means a dissident, yet neither were his stories panegyrics to the party line. On the one hand, Communist authorities expected journalists to have something of a watchdog function, exposing instances where policy was not being properly administered. Provided, of course, that the story did not rock too many boats. Ideally, such a report would reveal inadequacies at a local level that could then be set right by intervention from higher authorities. And indeed, in one or two, Kapuściński does offer to connect local people with folks from the center who could straighten out a thing or two. Kapuściński also practices the long-standing Polish art of seeing how much can get past the censor; more than a century of Russian occupation from partition to the Great War gave generations of Polish writers experience in testing limits, and Kapuściński is an heir to that tradition.

In “Far Away” there’s a village that automobiles have not yet reached, but DDT is there and people who know the land well argue with men sent by the party to improve the yield. Communism never sat well on Poland. The title character of “A Farmer at Grunwald Field” does not much care about the upcoming commemoration of 500 years since a Polish victory over German armies. Piatek used to be the top farmer in the area, but a wintertime accident broke bones in his hip and thigh, and they did not heal properly. Things are getting tougher. He’s pleased that many are coming to visit for the celebration, “but he’s worried that the thousands of feet will crush his field, which has been growing so promisingly.” (p. 24) “The Fifth Column on the March” counters the official narrative of the late 1950s that West Germany was a revanchist power, itching to re-take lands that had been transferred to Poland at the end of World War II. The story traces two older German women — born in 1876 and 1903 — who hear old songs on the radio and escape from an old folks’ home, thinking that the German army has returned. The women want to reclaim their farm a few towns away, where they had once led a sizable enterprise and employed 100 Poles. Of course nothing of the sort is happening, and local officials eventually return them to where they had been settled. It’s at once a send-up of how the party line portrayed Germany and a devastating portrait of aging.

“An Advertisement for Toothpaste” sets out the marital prospects in a tiny town with four times as many young women as young men, all set around a summertime dance that might or might not be a life-changing event for the dancers. In “No Known Address,” Kapuściński sketches guys working at staying in the cracks of the system, floating from work site to work site, never settling into the heroic workers’ roles that the party and state assure them are their destinies. “The Geezer” is twenty-seven, but having been born in the early 1930s, he’s worlds removed from his pupils who were born at war’s end and have only ever known reconstruction and socialism. “The Taking of Elzbieta” depicts the knowing and pious cruelty of a religious order that tempted a young woman away from her family. In “The Stiff,” a truck breaks down but the coffin still has to be delivered a dozen or so kilometers away. The pallbearers, who in truth did not know the dead man very well, decide to carry him through the night. Unexpected bits of life intervene along the way.

Polish audiences have long seen Nobody Leaves as a key collection of his work, but this first translation into English did not appear until 2017. The collection is short, fewer than 120 pages, and most of the stories are equally compact, but their brevity serves to concentrate their power.

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Dec 18 2019

The Kiss Quotient (The Kiss Quotient #1) by Helen Hoang

This may well be the best romance novel I’ve ever read. And it’s not just because it features a leading pair from two wildly under-represented groups in romance fiction. From start to finish, I desperately wanted our lovers to wind up together. I have literally never cared so much about a romantic couple having their HEA as much as I did this one.

Our heroine is Stella, an econometrician and autistic who has trouble socializing: not great when her mom has high hopes of grandbabies out of her only child. Her experiences with men have been so terrible that she decides that the most rational way to overcome them is by getting better at sex. So she hires Michael, a half-Vietnamese half-white escort, to teach her. Soon enough, they’ve graduated to practicing at a relationship instead of just practicing in bed. But will her neuroatypical reasonings and his self-punishing prejudices keep them from committing to the love they’re growing together?

It’s sort of a reverse Pretty Woman, only with a lot less of the grossness of that movie, and a lot more insight into both autism and Vietnamese culture. Stella and Michael are two lovely people caught in complicated circumstances, and the way they come to one another is one of the sweetest darn things I’ve ever experienced. It was also shockingly realistic despite the rich patron-poor prostitute framing. I mean, I get it, romances are about happily ever afters and those are far easier to obtain when our heroic couple is rolling in money, but honestly it’s one of my least favorite romance novel tropes. Poor people fall in love with each other too, you know. I will say one thing: while I would have found Michael’s behavior towards the end absolutely revolting from any other person, I thought it appropriate here, as he was mirroring what Stella had told him she would do herself in his situation.

Anyway, absolutely delightful romance with heart and brains and depth. I’m super looking forward to reading the next book in the series once it’s available from the library: the excerpt that I read from The Bride Test was really great, even as I sense that it’ll wind up being another rich-poor pairing again, though with a “lost heiress” angle this time. Minor annoyance in the face of how terrific the rest of the premise reads tho.

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Dec 16 2019

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

One of the problems with the classics is that their motivations can seem so far removed from our everyday lives. Even if the works can stand alone on their artistic merits, there’s often a lot of phobic nonsense distracting to modern-day readers who don’t have the privilege of merely ignoring such in our day-to-day: must we have to pretend it’s not hurtful in our entertainments either? The fact that appreciation of said classics often relies on a knowledge of the mores of their times in order to be comprehensible further alienates today’s readers, especially when the gatekeepers of such knowledge are themselves often of a, shall we say, classical persuasion that seems focused entirely on Then as opposed to Now. What point can there thus be in engaging with the classics when all they support is a fossilized worldview that seems perishingly meaningless in the face of our complicated times?

Even so, a classic is often a classic because the themes resonate, centuries on, even as the details too often detract from fully enjoying them. This is one of the reasons I’ve always been so fascinated by retellings, whether they be of fairy tales, legends, myths or plays. The resurgence of fairy tale retellings at the turn of the century was a godsend for me, and even more recently there’s been something of a trend in literary novelizations, whether to great effect (Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed, arguably Hannah Capin’s The Dead Queens Club which deals with history made legend,) or less so (Daisy Johnson’s Everything Under.) That was a large part of why I picked up Home Fire, a novel I would probably never have bothered with otherwise if I’d had only the blurb to go on. You’d think it was tailor-made for me — British Muslims worrying about their families in a time of increasing, encroaching terrorism — but honestly, I turn to fiction because I don’t want to deal with my real world problems for a span. I was, however, intrigued by the idea that the writer had loosely based this book on Sophocles’ Antigone. The original had never done anything much for me, but the concept, the idea of the re-telling, drew me in.

And wow, I get it now. Kamila Shamsie takes the abstract principles of burial and government and meaningless deaths, and translates them into concrete, modern-day examples that finally, finally get me to empathize with why a woman would throw away her own life over a dead relative. Broken into five parts, this tale begins with Isma, the dutiful older sister who gives up a chunk of her life to raise her siblings. When they’re finally grown up enough to be left on their own, she reclaims her academic trajectory, finally able to go abroad for her PhD. While in America, she runs into Eamonn, the son of a polarizing British politician, and accidentally sets him on a trajectory to meet her sister, the alluring, headstrong Aneeka, whose love for Eamonn will always be second to her love for her twin, Parvaiz. Parvaiz has been seduced into terrorism and desperately wants to come home, but Eamonn’s father, Karamat, the new Home Secretary, will do everything in his power to make that an impossibility. It’s a compelling narrative of heartbreak and disaster that it’s difficult to look away from: a train wreck, but in the best possible way.

Ms Shamsie takes the tale of warring Thebans and makes it modern and topical and, thus, relatable. In her telling, it’s less about gods and honor — religion here is more decorative than propulsive; fight me over it, if you want — and more about family and love. There’s probably a classicist somewhere fanning themselves over the temerity, but honestly, it’s the only time I’ve ever cared about Sophocles, so. There was a point near the middle of Isma’s bit where I was starting to roll my eyes at the MFA-ness of the writing, but it grew stronger and more self-assured as the book went on, leading to a devastating, indelible ending.

Home Fire well deserves all the accolades sent its way. If you care a whit about Antigone, or even if you want to know what all the fuss is about, I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

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Dec 14 2019

Infinite Stars: Dark Frontiers (Infinite Stars #2) edited by Bryan Thomas Schmidt

Oh gosh, how does any collection live up to its own hype of being “the definitive anthology of space opera”, especially when it’s the second of a series? Tho perhaps the series altogether is meant to be definitive?

Regardless, if you love you some space opera, this is a great place to not only immerse yourself in some of the finest representatives of the genre, but also to discover brand new authors and series you might not have been familiar with before. A particular delight of discovery for me was Weston Ochse and his deadpan look at alien invasion with The End-Of-The-World Bowling League, a story that expands on the Grunt Universe. I was also thrilled to make the acquaintance of Jack Campbell’s Lost Fleet series via its original representative in this volume, Ishigaki, as well as Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s Diving series with the inclusion of Lieutenant Tightass. Another terrific story from a new-to-me author was The Traitor by David Weber, who also contributes a charming introduction. While his Honor Harrington series has been perpetually on my radar, this is the first time I’ve ever actually read his work, and I’m much the better for it (tho I can understand how his wife is not a fan of the ending of this particular story.)

If I’m being perfectly honest, tho, I picked up this book because of authors I was already familiar with and was panting to read more of. Top of that list is Curtis C Chen, whose Codename Kangaroo novels I adore. His original short, Fire In The Pocket, is a terrific look at a young Kangaroo and the beginnings of one of his most important professional partnerships. I was also really excited to read Becky Chamber’s A Good Heretic: I’ve been meaning to read her Wayfarers series for ages and this story only served to heighten my excitement at hopefully finding time for the first book soon. I was familiar with C. L. Moore’s fantasy work (Black God’s Kiss is a classic) but had never read any of her space westerns: Shambleau was exactly as unsettling and terrific as you can expect from an author who believes love to be the most devastating force in the universe. For some reason, I was surprised to discover here that Gardner Dozois wrote short stories in addition to compiling them. The inclusion of his A Special Kind Of Morning underlines his excellent taste in addition to highlighting his own skill at writing in the genre.

Special mention goes to A Beast For Norn, which is the only one of the 26 stories here I’ve encountered previously. Everyone and their mom knows George R. R. Martin for Game Of Thrones, but far fewer are familiar with his terrific Haviland Tuf stories, of which ABFN is an excellent example (tho my personal favorite is Guardians, because yummy.)

I’m not 100% sure of how well this volume fulfills the remit of space-opera-definitive but I definitely had a good time exploring the universes with the stories included here. Some worked better than others, but I was overall impressed with how I didn’t often feel like I was missing a huge chunk of information because a story was set in a larger, established universe. Bryan Thomas Schmidt has done a great job curating a collection that will whet the reader’s appetite for discovery with tantalizing glimpses into whole galaxies of space fiction that deserve to be more widely read. Recommended.

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Dec 08 2019

Seven Surrenders by Ada Palmer

Of the predecessor to Seven Surrenders, Too Like the Lightning, I wrote that Palmer directly tackles the problem of how different far-future humans will be from present-day people. As Mycroft Canner, her unreliable narrator, says near that book’s beginning, “You will criticize me, reader, for writing in a style six hundred years removed from the events I describe, but you came to me for explanation of those days of transformation which left your world the world it is, and since it was the philosophy of the Eighteenth Century, heavy with optimism and ambition, whose abrupt revival birthed the recent revolution, so it is only in the language of the Enlightenment, rich with opinion and sentiment, that those days can be described. … It will be hard at first, but whether you are my contemporary still awed by the new order, or an historian gazing back at my Twenty-Fifth Century as remotely as I gaze back on the Eighteenth, you will find yourself more fluent in the language of the past than you imagined; we all are.” (Too Like the Lightning, p. 7)

Seven Surrenders

The people of four hundred years hence are both familiar and strange; the future, too, is a foreign country, and they do things differently there. One thing that the people of the future largely thought they did not do was sanction violence to uphold the systems of their societies. They thought that such things had been dispensed with after the final wars of religion. The Hive system of choosable law and government, at once cornerstone and keystone of the current Enlightenment, were meant to preserve autonomy and bring the benefits of plenty to all of humanity.

Seven Surrenders picks up immediately from the end of Too Like the Lightning and shows, among other things, the violence inherent in the system. Not only has the present peace been a masquerade, some key people have been preparing to win, and perhaps even instigate, a new war. By the end of the book’s tumultuous events, each of the seven Hives has surrendered an important part of its autonomy and self-understanding. The introduction promises that the present order does not hold, although that transformation has to await The Will to Battle and the forthcoming Perhaps the Stars, which complete Palmer’s Terra Ignota series.

Although Seven Surrenders is also a middle book, it concludes the first part of the set, and contains transformations of its own thus avoiding some of the typical middle-book problems. The world is familiar enough from Too Like the Lightning, so the reader spends less time figuring out the world and more time seeing it develop and change. The sprawling cast of characters is likewise familiar, so it is simpler to follow their metamorphoses. And there are plenty of those, with many new connections revealed, alliances broken, and reversals suffered. It isn’t the beginning of the end, but it is the end of the beginning.

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Dec 07 2019

Luna by Ian McDonald

Several months after finishing Ian McDonald’s Luna trilogy — Luna: New Moon, Luna: Wolf Moon, and Luna: Moon Rising — the two things that have stuck with me the most are the scale of the achievement and the vividness of so many scenes throughout the books. McDonald has brought a great deal of life to a dead world, given it firm ground to take root in, and set loose epic conflicts among larger-than-life personalities.

Luna New Moon

The moon has been colonized for decades, long enough for a substantial society to have been set up, with cultures and fashion and divergence from the mother world, but recent enough that the moderately extended lives of the founding generation are just nearing their ends as McDonald’s story begins. Or rather, some of those lives are nearing their ends; many more ended earlier in accidents or conflicts among the families who have come to dominate lunar society. The moon remains a harsh mistress, with missteps, mayhem, or radiation bringing many lives to premature ends. Nevertheless, people emigrate willingly to the moon. Wages there are fantastic, and opportunities in many earthside societies are even more limited in the future than they are in the present.

Luna’s main export to Terra is helium-3. In McDonald’s setting, fusion is no longer fifteen years in the future, as it has been on earth for the last forty years, but has become humanity’s main power source. Helium from the lunar regolith keeps the lights lit on humanity’s home planet. Much of the moon is a mining operation, and the rivalries among mining clans drive much of the conflict in the extended story.

McDonald opens his tale with a new rite of passage: a moon-run. Naked, exposed in the vacuum on the lunar surface. Twenty meters, ten strides for the six young people first crammed into a capsule and then dashing across the dust and rock to the safety of the next airlock. They are golden youth of Luna’s leading families: a Corta from the helium masters; two Asamoahs, Luna’s life-givers; a Mackenzie, the metal miners; a Sun of trade; and a Vorontsov from the controllers of the routes between earth and moon. These families are the Five Dragons of the moon, clans in constant intrigue, competition, enmity and alliance. They also draw on five earthside cultures reflecting their origins. The Cortas are from Brazil, Mackenzies from Australia, Asamoahs from Ghana, Suns from China and Vorontsovs from Russia. During the moon-run, one of the Asamoahs stumbles, a potentially fatal error. Lucasinho Corta risks his own life by helping his fellow runner to make it to the second gate safely. The obligations thus incurred will ripple throughout the story.

Luna Wolf Moon

For his second scene, McDonald moves to the opposite end of the lunar hierarchy. Marina Calzaghe is new to the moon, and her life is precarious. The Four Elementals — water, space, data, and air — are closely monitored, and nothing is free. Marina has quarters near the surface, where radiation can more readily penetrate than to the deeper homes of the wealthy, and work has been scarce so she has had to dial back her breathing to an uncomfortable level.

Contrasts established, McDonald brings the opposites together, begins to introduce his sprawling cast, and lets the clans pick up their conflicts that had been held in abeyance. Marina gets hired by the Cortas as part of the catering staff for a party, and her combination of previous training, good reflexes, and earthside strength undimmed by long tenure on the moon prevent the assassination of the Corta heir. From that moment, the action seldom slows, though sometimes various characters try to channel the conflict into less overtly deadly forms. On the other hand, with the moon set up as something of a libertarian utopia — there is no criminal law, and everything is negotiable under contract law, with trial by combat as a final resort — that is a purely relative matter. And even with a significant settled population on the moon and decades of experience maintaining habitats and vehicles, death by misadventure and vacuum is never far away.

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Dec 06 2019

Herrn Dames Aufzeichnungen by Franziska Gräfin zu Reventlow

The series introduction to Herrn Dames Aufzeichnungen (Herr Dame’s Notebooks) calls it “the key novel about the Bohemian scene in Schwabing around 1900″ and the volume’s introduction notes that in it Reventlow worked through some of her experiences with the “Cosmic” circle that included writers and artists such as Stefan George (the only name I recognized), Karl Wolfskehl, Ludwig Klages and Alfred Schuler. The introduction matches characters from the book with the real people who were their models, so presumably the connections are obvious.

Herrn Dames Aufzeichnungen

The Notebooks are framed by a story, which is set up as a direct address to the “friend and connoisseur” who receives a packet containing the Notebooks, of a brief shipboard acquaintance with Herr Dame (his surname means the same in German as it does in English) who had written down his impressions during an intense time in Munich but who had since left it forever. Having left everything behind, he was keen to dispose of the manuscript, leaving it with the authors of the frame story. Shortly after departing from the ship, he departed from life itself, perishing in a train wreck. The authors of the frame ask whether Dame’s diaries and sketches form a document humain (French in the original) and a suitable memorial for the engaging young man.

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Dec 03 2019

1968: The Year That Rocked the World by Mark Kurlansky

1968 by Mark Kurlansky

Ok, boomer.

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Nov 30 2019

A Symphony of Echoes by Jodi Taylor

A Symphony of Echoes is every bit as fun as Just One Damned Thing After Another, the first book chronicling the adventures of the historians of St Mary’s Institute, who definitely do not travel through time. No indeed, they investigate major historical events in contemporary time. Which is how the first quarter of the book takes Dr Madeleine Maxwell, the first-person narrator, to Whitechapel on a cold November night in 1888 for a look at the investigation into Jack the Ripper that turns out to be entirely too close for comfort.

A Symphony of Echoes

One disaster is hardly averted before the next one strikes: someone has absconded with the chief of St Mary’s technical section. Leon Farrell is not just crucial to the Institute’s operations, he’s from the future (long story) and he’s Maxwell’s sweetheart (shorter story). Evidence points toward cross-temporal enemies from the first book who are trying to set up a more profit-driven version of historical research and who would be happy to put St Mary’s out of the competition. Permanently and with extreme prejudice.

These developments send Maxwell up and down the timeline to save her love and her institute, keep History from unraveling, and bring a few dodos to the future (not necessarily in that order). Worse yet, she may be condemned to spend some time as management.

Along the way, the historians spend some time in the Hanging Gardens of Nineveh and the court of Mary Queen of Scots. They are perpetually a hair’s breadth from calamity, and the pace of the story never flags. Having pulled out all the stops in Just One Damned Thing After Another, Taylor only puts a few of them back in for the second volume. Fewer characters get killed along the way, and I wonder whether the series will begin to develop a redshirt problem as it goes on, or whether Taylor will find more non-fatal ways to put her characters in danger. She’s definitely not going to give them a quiet life of perusing manuscripts, going to academic conferences, and pursuing methodological feuds. Especially since the next volume promises a visit to the Trojan War.

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Nov 27 2019

An Interview With Lauren Duca, author of How To Start A Revolution

I was super excited to get a chance to chat with Lauren Duca, the witty, outspoken and occasionally controversial author of How To Start A Revolution, an accessible guide to fostering greater political engagement that’s also a brilliant look at the present-day alienation of the American voter. We talked about her book, politics, David Sedaris and what she’s reading today, among other subjects.


Let’s talk about How To Start A Revolution, which was probably my favorite political book of the year. What made you decide that you needed to write a book to further the cause of progressive politics considering that you already do so much with your articles, TV appearances and tweets? Why was a book so attractive to you?

Lauren: I went through this political awakening with Trump’s election, and it suddenly made no sense to be writing about anything other than politics. Freelancing is such a difficult feast-or-famine struggle, and it’s hard to find regular work writing about politics in what is pretty obviously a boys’ club of expertise. So I figured I would shoot my shot and I put together a plan for researching and reporting kind of ten different angles for how we had gotten to the dumpster fire of Trump’s election. Basically, my ask was “please let me spend all my time on this and just let me pay my rent and healthcare.” The sample chapter of that book proposal was my piece, Donald Trump Is Gaslighting America.

I’m really glad you decided to shoot your shot! How did How To Start A Revolution evolve from where the idea first germinated in your head?

How To Start A Revolution by Lauren DucaWhen Donald Trump Is Gaslighting America took off in Teen Vogue, it started the conversation about disinformation coming out of the White House, but also whether or not young women care about politics. There was kind of this patronizing contemplation of that because just the idea of the article being in Teen Vogue was apparently very surprising to some old white men in media. I started to think about the ways in which young people’s political participation or lack thereof is framed as a matter of not caring. I had just undergone this political awakening and I knew that my experience wasn’t that I didn’t care before. I was socially justice minded and interested in the grand project of equality, but I just did not have the sense of agency and self-determination in terms of traditional politics. I felt as if government was something that was happening to me. That’s what became the foundation for unpacking the difference between alienation and apathy, and trying to provide pathways for people to have this “click” moment of understanding that we are the ones that must be doing the work of democracy. The fact that we’re not isn’t a matter of laziness but of a system that boxes out our voices and doesn’t invite us to the table, and then chastises us for not showing up.

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