Late summer reading micro-review dump

I’ve gotten so behind on my review dumps that I’ve forgotten a lot of the books I’ve read since I last posted. I need to start keeping lists. In the meantime, here are some mini-reactions to books I read between June and early September. Sarah Caudwell, Toni Morrison, Thomas Hardy, Nicola Griffith, Molly Gloss, Nora Samaran, Nnedi Okorafor, Sarah Léon, Damien Le Bas, Charles Dickens, P.G. Wodehouse, Arkady Martine, Amal El-Mohtar/Max Gladstone, Christopher Isherwood, Tove Jansson. (Will there ever be a mini-review dump where I have not read at least one new Jansson? Answer: I hope not).

Spoilers for everything.

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Sarah Caudwell, Thus Was Adonis Murdered (novel, 1981): Wry, delightful murder mystery, surprisingly queer for 1981: the narrator is left deliberately ungendered, and a plot point that initially seems like “bury your gays” becomes “your gays fake their own death to steal the identity of a wealthy expatriate art snob.”

Toni Morrison, Sula (novel, 1973): This novel is the sort of masterpiece whose dimensions are so varied that by the end of your first read, you know you’ve only seen one color in an expansive prism. Morrison layers more into a paragraph than other writers do in a whole book, and I’ll need to read Sula at least one more time to be able to say anything useful about it.

Thomas Hardy, Jude the Obscure (novel, 1894): Even grimmer than advertised.

Nicola Griffith, Hild (novel, 2013): Hild has become my gold standard for well-researched historical fiction, as I feel like I’ve completed a course in seventh-century farming practices, psychology, and religious politics just by reading it. It’s hard to believe that Nicola Griffith does not actually know what retting smells like, or has never skimmed cream from milk with her forearm.

Molly Gloss, Wild Life (novel, 2000): Like Hild, Wild Life is fastidiously historical, only Gloss’s greater faithfulness is to psychology than the minutiae of daily life. Her protagonist is an early twentieth-century feminist who has fought so hard for her independence she’s become stuck in that fighting pose, and must relearn the intimate joy of dependence, via Sasquatches.  

Nora Samaran, Turn This World Inside Out (nonfiction, 2019): My good friend Morgan gave me this book as a gift, and I’m deeply grateful for it. Samaran gives the clearest descriptions of gaslighting and the problem of oppressor-guilt I’ve ever read. I’ll definitely be teaching it in the future.

Nnedi Okorafor, Binti Trilogy (novella cycle, 2015-9): I enjoyed many elements in these books, but kept getting distracted by their uneven pacing and my questions about the politics of the wider universe through which their characters, human and nonhuman, moved.

Sarah Léon, Wanderer (novel, 2016): Literally a contemporary Sturm und Drang romance, to such an extent that by its conclusion I was screaming at the protagonist to take his literally tubercular boyfriend to the hospital (he didn’t).

Damian Le Bas, The Stopping Places (memoir, 2018): This memoir follows a young Roma man’s pilgrimage to famous “stopping places” in British Gypsy/Roma history and his own youth. The former tend to be more interesting reading than the latter, since Le Bas’s personal journey is less eventful than the history he chronicles.  

Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (novel, 1859): Though I have had the final sentence to this novel memorized since age fifteen, I still found myself racing breathlessly through it and tearing up at the absurdly melodramatic conclusion. Dickens was good at his job.

P.G. Wodehouse, novels: Thank You, Jeeves (1934), Joy in the Morning (1947), The Mating Season (1949): P.G. Wodehouse knows language is a silly thing, so his books would be funny even if they weren’t intricate send-ups of the useless rich, which they are. I read all of these novels in an audiobook version narrated by Jonathan Cecil, a brilliant narrator who was either inspired by or the inspiration for the Jeeves and Wooster TV series, since his mannerisms resemble Fry and Laurie’s versions of the characters too closely to be coincidental.

Arkady Martine, A Memory Called Empire (novel, 2019): Flawless space opera, and the closest contemporary analogue to Le Guin’s Hainish cycle I’ve ever read.

Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone, How to Lose the Time War (novella, 2019): I wanted very badly to love this book, as I love El-Mohtar’s short stories, and Time War has all my favorite elements—competent lady spies! slow-burn queer romance! time travel! people randomly obsessed with Keats!—but I found the prose purple, the worldbuilding thin, and the romance flat.

Christopher Isherwood, Down There on a Visit (novel, 1962): Like his more famous The Berlin Stories, this novel is a set of excruciatingly honest portraits of people who cannot be honest with themselves, and who are paralyzed by a rising fascism they feel powerless to fight.

Tove Jansson, short story collections: Art in Nature (1978), Letters from Klara (1991): When I was in England I bought all the Tove Jansson collections that are unavailable in the US, and I’m happy I did. She remains my favorite short story writer, a precise chronicler of human interaction whose honesty never becomes contempt and whose sympathy, never exoneration.