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April Reading List

April is over already and I know I’m forgetting something on this list but I can’t remember what. I guess this is the chance for my pals who have to hear me babble about what I’ve been reading to test whether they pay better attention than I apparently do.

I have some posts partly written, several still in my head. I just can’t face the discipline it takes to sit down and own up to them, I guess. So instead this is the easy part, what I did when I wasn’t blogging.

Persian Mirrors: The Elusive Face of Iran, Elaine Sciolino
Yes, boys and girls, I think we’d better be prepping for the next war. I didn’t learn much news in a big-picture sense from this story, although maybe not everyone went through a phase of reading lots and lots of books about Iran, so that’s not saying too much. Sciolino details memories from her visits to Iran as a journalist from her meetings with Khomeini in his pre-Revolution exile to (in my favorite anecdote) the day she learns that the misguided US policy of “dual containment” of Iran and Iraq as if they were separate-but-equal forces in wickedness was in part a result of an article she’d written opposing any such policy. You get a sense of the culture, history, even terrain of Iran without getting too much deeper, but it’s a patchwork worth reviewing. It’s a nuanced book, easy reading for something that deals with hundreds of characters over more than two decades, and maybe not a bad start while we’re listening to the drums in the deep.

The Lake of Dead Languages, Carol Goodman
I never liked Donna Tartt’s The Secret History even though I know I’m supposed to and I want to give it a charitable reading now that I’m older even though I didn’t like her next book, The Little Friend last fall. This tale, though, is about Latinists not Greeksters, which is perhaps why I don’t hold it to a high standard. It’s a fun enough story about a woman separating from her husband who goes back to the boarding school she attended in high school and where her roommates committed suicide to teach Latin. That part of the book is fine, but when she starts to realize that crime has come to campus and that (bum bum bum) perhaps the suicides weren’t quite that I lost a bit of interest. It’s a problem in a 500-page whodunit if you can easily figure out the “who” in the first 150 pages and then have to just keep waiting for things to get dun and the protagonist to wake the fuck up and deal with the necessary denouement. That sounds like I liked it much less than I did. It dealt with adolescent girls (and Latin!) in what seemed like a largely plausible way, though it is first and foremost a plot-driven story, even if the plot takes its time moving through its curves. I’d recommend it as fun, but it’s nothing special unless you’re a classics geek, in which case you should be encouraging me to geek up myself and do better than just reading high-class trashy mysteries.

The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, Alexander McCall Smith
I’ve read this before, but it was only $1 and I couldn’t pass it up. I don’t know to what degree the voice is accurate or fair and not some sort of colonialist fantasy, but the view of the peculiar sufferings of women was one I wanted to hear when I read it, though I don’t think it’s the only truth.

Worlds of Exile and Illusion, Ursula Le Guin contains the books from her Hainish/Ekumen of Known Worlds series Rocannon’s World, Planet of Exile, City of Illusions.
Still on my Le Guin kick. These books, originally published separately, have more connections (though obscure enough to be not really necessary to understand the stories) than the other Hainish novels I’ve read. My favorite was Planet of Exile because it was a love story of a most unsentimental sort. People fall in love/lust and make their choices and live through wars and trials or don’t, but there was a deep beauty about it.

Passage, Connie Willis
I don’t believe in near-death experiences, but there was something about this book that got me out of bed to have Steven tuck me in because I was so unnerved that I needed to get up and move around. It’s very much a “creation of self through narrative” story about a woman researching near-death experiences who is able to go into a simulated version only to realize she’s found something very real to her. There’s not a good way to resolve the story and keep those who do think there’s an afterlife as happy as those of us who think that’s just the end of us.

River of Gods, Ian McDonald
I really need to write about this book, especially the anime/manga aspect of nute fetishism, which I thought was really cool. I don’t remember where Steven read about this first, but he’s been looking for it for a year or so and it’s finally available in the states. It’s a story about geopolitics and sex and intrigue and water wars and rogue AIs in post-India at the centennial of its no longer being pre-India, 2047. I’ve never read such a well-realized future world and enjoyed and appreciated the nine personal stories we follow, although I found Shiv’s the least interesting and was disappointed that his opens the volume. Unlike a lot of books with multiple characters and converging storylines (I’m thinking of William Gibson and Barbara Kingsolver, who display quite different and differently disappointing tendencies) have real endings after real arcs. To go back to The Lake of Dead Languages a bit, even once it’s obvious what’s going on and what some of the solutions are, the human element remains so real that those story bits don’t really matter. Much as I’ve gone crazy for Le Guin and probably others, I think this is the best-written and most affecting book I’ve read this year and I can’t wait for Steven to finish his semester and take a crack at it so we can talk together. Maybe I’ll be a kind blogger and figure out some ways to talk about it here because wow did I like this book!

Life Mask, Emma Donoghue
I still adore Emma Donoghue, whose Stir-Fry I wrote about a lifetime ago and loved even farther into the past. I could say this one is set in the same universe as her previous historical novel, Slammerkin except that the protagonist here, Eliza, is trying to be sure that as a celebrated actress she’s keeping herself (barely) in the rarefied World of the aristocracy in England just before/in the midst of the French Revolution has no overlap whatsoever with the street life of a common whore. Eliza befriends Anne, a talented sculptor, but feels she has to let the friendship fall when rumors of lesbianism pop up, because while a true aristocrat can weather anything, those who’ve worked their way in have no right to safety. Meanwhile there’s plenty of political intrigue on the part of the Whigs who disapprove of Pitt the Elder, not to mention aristocratic adultery all over the place. And then at the end there’s suddenly a love story that made me smile (and, in the book, may make Walpole smile). It’s not that I don’t know English history at all, but I certainly didn’t know it to the who-was-fucking-whom-when level and still don’t entirely even for the group involved here, but I very much enjoyed the detailed view. I’d have smarter things to say, I think, if I hadn’t been tired when I finished it last night and tired now when I try to think of a response, so I’ll leave it at that.

Onward and upward. I have some reading plans for May, but we have many family obligations so I may end up posting a very short list and feeling sure that everyone is laughing at me, which they may well be. We’ll see!