Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

spinningsilverSpinning Silver
by Naomi Novik
2018

I spent an afternoon and two evenings gasping “oh no!” in between bouts of giggling, and stayed up way too late both nights and had a very difficult time putting it down for a night and a work-day in the middle. I love Novik’s writing and her characters are a delight, and she keeps her plotting fast and dense, and just so much happened and I loved it all!

The story is clearly inspired by Rumpelstiltskin, but makes a lot of changes, and really focuses around the theme of trading value for value, as it tells the interlinked stories of a young jewish money lender, a poor servant girl, the daughter of a duke, a tsar, and the king of the winter elves.

The world-building is also amazing as Novik introduces a whole magical realm in parallel to a more historical Russia, and then leaves both the reader and the main characters to piece together the rules of magic and society that permeate that alternate world.

It also made me realize that while, like any fairytale, it’s something of a morality tale, the morals quite difference from the standard. Many fairytales have the moral that if you remain kind even in abusive situations, then you’ll eventually get out and go on to have a good life. Which is an important lesson and is touched on, but isn’t the main one here. And this one is equally valuable: be ruthless in your demands for fair treatment and harden your heart against those who would emotionally manipulate you to avoid the consequences of their actions.

So, to sum up, this was amazing and I highly recommend it. It also kind of reminded me of not only Novik’s previous book Uprooted, but also Bujold’s Sharking Knife series, and Mckinley’s Sunshine, all of which I also really liked and recommend.

 

Less

41SdL441MFL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_A number of years ago I made a decision: I was not going to spend any more of my wild and precious life reading books about how hard it is to be an old white man. Overall I’ve been pleased with this choice and think I am a happier person for spending my time reading YA and mysteries rather than Tom Wolfe or Jonathan Franzen or whatever else the New Yorker wants me to care about. But every now and then one of these “I am a white man with broken relationships and concerns about my legacy” stories slips through. Often this just reinforces my original decision (I am still mad about the time I’ve spent on Philip Roth) but on those rare occasions when I am pleasantly surprised, I want to give credit where it’s due. So let’s talk about Less by Andrew Sean Greer.

Arthur Less is about to turn 50, his latest novel has been rejected by his publisher, and he just got an invitation to his younger not-quite-a-boyfriend’s wedding to someone else. He clearly cannot possibly attend, so he patches together enough teaching/residency/vacation offers to make up a months-long trip around the world. The book follows him from his California home to Mexico, Paris, Morocco, India, and assorted other locations as he tries to overcome both small daily indignities and his looming worries that his life has amounted to nothing. This sounds like it would fall squarely in my hated “old white man” category, but it somehow covers that ground while also being quite charming and feeling relatable to those outside its main character’s demographic. Arthur has a sense of the absurd that gives him a perspective on what’s happening to/around him, and the author is aware enough to actually address the old white man issue within the plot in a quite clever way. It’s a brief book and quick read, but it’s stuck with me for days, leaving me thinking about how we perceive ourselves vs. how others do, and especially about how we are seen by those who love us.

A couple of final notes: first, I am definitely not breaking any news here, since Less won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. As is typical for me, I’m just chiming in late on something already widely recognized as great. Second, as I was looking at various reviews and comments on this book, I saw a number of people refer to this as a comedic novel. This surprised me, since I didn’t think it was funny at all. I do tend to be sensitive to stories about people embarrassing themselves and that does make up a big part of this story–if other people find that funny, I can only conclude that they must be monsters. Maybe some reviewers feel like they have to call it comedic simply because it doesn’t feature constant addiction and death with a backdrop of genocide? I think it’s more accurate to say that this is a bittersweet story that at times made me very sad, but ultimately surprised me with how full of hope and supportive of happiness it turned out to be.

Kinsey’s Three-ish Word Review:  Delicate and surprisingly emotional

You might also like:  The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce or Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson. This was actually a tough one for me and I really struggled to think of books that shared both the general sort of story issues but also had the same sort of sweet and sad feeling. I would love to hear anyone else’s thoughts on this one–Less surprised me so much that I am still trying to get my head around it.

art history from The Met

I wasn’t particularly aware that The Met (aka The Metropolitan Museum of Art) had its own publishing house, but I’m certainly not surprised. It focuses on art history books.

What does amaze and delight me is that they’ve apparently decided to put their out-of-print books online for free, available to read online or download.

Sweet!

As of writing this, there are 569 books available in their entirety. From just a random pass, they include:

The Academy of the Sword: Illustrated Fencing Books 1500-1800

Peruvian Featherworks: Art of the Precolumbian Era

Words and Images: Chinese Poetry, Calligraphy, and Painting

I haven’t read any of them yet, but having discovered this small archive of amazing books, I figured I needed to spread the word. Cheers!

Slade House

By David Mitchell

Slade_HouseKinsey has read a fair number of Mitchell’s books, but this is my first one, and the only way I was able to put it down at all was to try to stretch it out for longer, it was so good! It is also very spooky, so I recommend it for a good October reading, leading up to Halloween. (I realize I’m cutting it a bit close here.)

The story is broken into five chapters, which are all set in the same mysterious house but which each take place 9 years later than the previous one. That alone would be enough to get me, but what really sold me was that each chapter is told in first-person from people from a fairly wide variety of backgrounds and, of course, generations.

The first chapter is set in 1979, with a young teenage boy, clearly on the autism spectrum, accompanying his middle-class but social-climbing mother to an afternoon soiree at the prestigious Slade House. Because this first narrator doesn’t always see things the way neurotypical people might, the awareness that something is off about Slade House came to me gradually. Which, of course, only enhanced the spookiness!

Each chapter unlocks more about what is going on in the house, until the final climatic reveal, which takes a bit of an L from where it appeared to be going. This turned out to be a bit controversial in my household, where I thought it was an intriguing departure from the norm, and Rebecca thought it was lame (though she really enjoyed the rest of the book).

Graphic novels on systematic oppression

I was in a mood the last time I was at the library and these are the three other graphic novels I got along with Freedom Hospital, and all of them are about dealing with systematic oppression. Not necessarily successfully, but trying to. They are none of them cheery.

RunforitRun For It: Stories of slaves who fought for their freedom
by Marcelo D’Salete
2017

There’s four chapters, telling four somewhat interlinked stories of black resistance to slavery in Brazil. And it’s just heart-breaking. Individuals could and did fight for their freedom, but unlike a game of tag, there was no home base, no safety or home free. There was just constant risk of staying, even greater risk of trying to leave, and no alternatives.

And trying to organize for a rebellion against the structure itself was just more courting death.

It also really shows how slavery-based societies actively promote viciousness and suppress empathy, among everyone involved, slave owner and slave alike. And possibly the greatest rebellion that the slaves managed to (sometimes) win, was to maintain a sense of worth to their own lives and the lives of their loved ones.

girlcalledechoA Girl Called Echo, Vol. 1: Pemmican Wars
by Katherena Vermette, Scott B. Henderson, and Donovan Yaciuk
2017

This a beautifully done YA comic about Echo, who has been placed in a new school and a new foster care house. In school, she’s learning the history of the Métis, the local indigenous tribe, from which she is descended but not raised with. She’s in a position where she doesn’t fit in with the people around her or even with the people who should have been her people, but about whom she doesn’t know anything.

But in an odd experience that comes with no explanation (in this volume, at least) she is transported back in time, for short periods, to the era that her modern history class is talking about. And that’s where she makes what looks like her first a friend, Marie, a young Métis girl. But Marie is experiencing the time that Echo is learning about in school: the series of conflicts between Métis and colonists that largely destroyed the Métis way of life.

veraxVERAX: The True History of Whistleblowers, Drone Warfare, and Mass Surveillance
by Pratap Chatterjee and Khalil
2017

Pratap Chatterjee is a journalist and the graphic novel follows his years-long investigation into governmental mass surveillance and drone warfare. So the slow start and surprisingly long time it takes to get anywhere might be a realistic portrayal of the frustration of the investigation but it makes for a book that spends the first half alternating between victims speaking about their loved ones being killed in drone attacks and Chatterjee speaking about his editor not properly appreciating his nose for a story. Chatterjee does not look good in the comparison.

That said, about two thirds of the way through, it starts to pick up with Edward Snowden’s whistleblowing. At that point the story shifts from following an investigation to explaining the implications of the information found, and that was much more interesting.

VERAX brought up two things that I hadn’t given much thought to before:

First:

That unmanned drones are not actually unmanned: they have a crew of 180 people stationed around the world, keeping them in the air, flying them, analyzing the data, examining the video feed, and making the calls to fire. It means that Air Force enlisted kids right out of high school and sat them down in front of screens with crappy surveillance video (this is not the high def videos shown in the movies) and has them watch the grainy videos of people dismembered and dying from the missiles they helped launch. Rates of PTSD among drone pilots who never leave their offices is amazingly high.

My dad used to say, “be careful what you put into your head, because you can’t always get it out again.” Some knowledge is important to have, and certainly worth the pain of being a third party witness. But sometimes it is just too much: I can’t imagine spending years watching those videos live.

Second:

While mass surveillance is an invasion of privacy and terrifying in how pervasive it is, it is almost equally terrifying how rife with errors it is. It’s bad data and the government is making life-or-death decisions based on this data. That’s why there are so many civilian casualties by a method that is supposed to be created specifically to avoid them. Because how often have you called a wrong number or gotten a call from someone trying to reach someone else? Maybe it’s an old phone number of maybe a 5 got misread as a 6, or a 1 as a 7.

It’s full of bad data, such that a good third of the drone strikes were made on the wrong targets. And the institutions making use of the data tend heavily towards confirmation bias. Ie, if they’re looking for a weapon and they see someone in a person’s hands, that’s evidence that they have a weapon. As opposed to looking at someone carrying something and considering how many other things they could be carrying: a glass of water, a baby, a bag of skittles. No matter how smart you are, no matter how dedicated, you cannot make good decisions based on bad data.

But overall, as a book, it was a slow start that finished with a lot of ideas and was very thought provoking.

I recommend all three books, but they are draining as they show how hard and yet necessary it is to maintain hope.

Freedom Hospital by Hamid Sulaiman

freedomhospitalFreedom Hospital: A Syrian Story
written and drawn by Hamid Sulaiman, 2016
translated by Francesca Barrie, 2017

This is a gorgeous graphic novel, with stark images that carry a lot of impact. The style matches the story too, in its stark contrast that still manages complex characters in a confusing state of social collapse.

There’s a cast of twelve main characters in and around the underground hospital Yasmine has set up to provide medical treatment to the resistance of the current regime. It’s not strictly non-fiction — Sulaiman took liberties with combining characters and stories, but it’s not really fiction either. It starts in spring 2012, and covers the year in four seasons with a short epilog set in spring 2013.

It’s not particularly long or technically hard to read, but it’s a hard subject and the characters are all complex and the situation even more so. And I keep on thinking about days later. One of the things that really struck me about it was the way Sulaiman created a background by the simple matter of, when there was a time cut between scenes, there’s a small line saying how many hours or days later it was, and how many people had died in that time.

“six days later: another 731 killed.”
“ten hours later: another 69 killed.”
“two weeks later: another 2,157 killed.”
“twelve days later: another 793 killed.”

And the people who survive carry on trying to do something: to win, to get noticed, to be saved, to survive…

Some of them do and some of them don’t, and everyone just keeps on trying to find some right thing to do, whether it’s to stay or leave or join one of the militias.

It’s heart breaking and wearying and shows just how easy it is to become accustomed to truly horrifying circumstances.

The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells

3rogueprotocolThe Murderbot Diaries: Rogue Protocol
The Murderbot Diaries: Exit Strategy
By Martha Wells
2018

4ExitStrategyThis is a series of four novellas, the first two of which I’ve already reviewed, but I wanted to make at least a little post about the final two, which have now come out and complete the character arc. They are so good! They each stand alone, but they also all work together to be greater than any one part.

They’re also somewhat reassuring in the way that they are set in a dystopian universe but is still pretty blasé about the whole thing. The characters are trying their best, mostly, and while things do go well, mostly, it’s not world changing, except for the main individual who’s trying to figure out its own place in the world.

Life continues on, self-discover continues on, even when you’re wandering around in a world of corporate control and violent greed. And sometimes you can still have a realistically happy ending.