Monday, July 31, 2017

For a Change, Let's Talk About Actual Books (Part 23)

Been a while since I did one of these!  Let's take a quick time-out from all that yabber about ponyfic and instead talk about reading material of the sort that normies don't arch their eyebrows at!  Head down below the break for a quick peek at the books I'm currently in the process of reading, and what I think of them to whatever point I'm at in them.

Spartacus, by Aldo Schiavone

What it is:  A look at the history of Spartacus, focusing on the rebellion he lead--and directly challenging the idea that it was a "slave rebellion" rather than "a rebellion, begun by slaves."

How I'm liking it so far:  The point the author argues with this book is basically that slavery was an institution which the Roman-era Mediterraneans simply couldn't envision life without; that wanting to be free was all well and good, and that rebellion against Rome's particular brand of mass-market slavery was one thing, but that there just wasn't a socio-economic model which didn't incorporate slavery at the time.  From there, he tries to piece together Spartacus's motivations, based on what little we can reliably say of his actions and troop movements.  He makes a solid case, but (and it's possible that this is the fault of Jeremy Carden, the translator, but I'm inclined to think not) doesn't make it particularly clearly.  This book feels much longer than its 150ish pages (not counting copious endnotes and bibliography), and a lot of it feels rather ancillary.  Or rather, the ancillary bits seem haphazardly strewn about the parts which support his larger conclusion, rather than existing as discreet asides or being used in an otherwise narratively cogent manner.

Recommendation:  I'm almost finished with this one, and I think it'd make a good choice for the student of ancient history (including the casual or armchair student) who's interested in an attempt to separate modern worldview from historical.  It's a bit dry for the pure pop-history crowd, however, and although it's by no means unsupported, it might be a frustrating reading experience for those looking for a clean and clear focus on its main idea.

The Golem, by Elie Wiesel

What it is:  A retelling of the famous hebrew legend.

How I'm liking it so far:  The only other thing of Wiesel's I'd ever read was Night, which is obviously a completely different beast from this.  I also knew very little about the legend of the golem--just what it is, basically--so I can't really speak to whether this is a faithful retelling of Jewish folklore, or a unique creation spinning from the same.  Regardless, the narrative is both clever and cleverly-written (it's a story-within-a-story-within-a-story, and even at the early point I'm at, this structure is relevant in ways that some authors forget to make their gimmicks), and the way the golem is depicted as almost superhuman rather than "just" a robot, like I was expecting, has caught my attention.

Recommendation:  I'm not far enough in to have a strong grasp on where this is going, but already I feel comfortable recommending this to fans of folklore in general, and of writing with the ineffable timeless quality which much fantasy literature seeks to emulate (and which precious little succeeds at).

Killers of the Flower Moon, by David Grann

What it is:  A history of the Osage murders: a series of killings of wealthy Native Americans starting in the late 1920s.

How I'm liking it so far:  Grann's account is undeniably hook-y, doling out plenty of suspense without ever withholding information readers would feel they had a "right" to know (that is, the only mysteries come from the chronology of what is discovered, not from authorial fiat).  And the subject matter is interesting beyond doubt, lying as it does at a juxtaposition of US race relations, broad-eye American history (this is a story about the creation of the FBI), and true crime.  I do wish there's been a little less of that last one, though; there are spots where the attempt to flesh out all the many players in this drama felt less like history than like... well, something more salacious.  Still, that doesn't come at the expense of the history, which is the important thing.

Recommendation:  If you have trouble getting into history because it's "too boring," this book might be a good one; it's definitely not written like an action-adventure fic, but it's got plenty of drama, death, and mystery, and the author doesn't shy away from that.  Not a great choice for readers looking for more academia and less narrative focus, though.

Report From Planet Midnight, by Nalo Hopkinson

What it is:  A collection of writing from the author, both fiction and non-.  The book is part of the Outspoken Authors series, a collection meant to give "today's edgiest, most entertaining, and uncompromising writers" a voice.

How I'm liking it so far:  I've only read the first short story and the transcript of her speech on race in SF writing (admittedly, that's half the material in this slim volume), and I have mixed feelings.  While I admit I have no real understanding of what challenges SF writers from non-white&western backgrounds face going in, I don't feel like I learned much from what I've read so far--there was more castigation than education, and if there were provocative themes in the short story (Message in a Bottle) that aren't present in "traditional" SF short stories, then I must confess I missed them.  With that said, I enjoyed that story, so... maybe the lesson is that I'm not the problem?  That seems a little too convenient; I think it's more likely there's something here I'm not understanding, and the first half of this book hasn't given me enough to see it.

Recommendation:  Considering that I did enjoy the story, I plan to finish this, if only to find out what the promised Caribbean influences that are absent from tradSF are.  I'd say definitely don't plan to read the speech if you don't like (self?)mocking performance art, but the first story stands on its own without any grounding in the author's race.

The Three Body Problem, by Cixin Liu

What it is:  A tale of first contact during China's cultural revolution, and the impending disastrous consequences.

How I'm liking it so far:  I'd really like to be able to like this story... but so far, I really don't.  I'm just having a tremendous amount of difficulty relating to the main character, who feels terribly wooden and unreactive to me--even when she literally [spoilers], it feels more like a bit of ennui than a logical outgrowth of her character.  But then, I feel that way about a lot of her life choices, including her career decision--and it all adds up to me feeling left adrift.  Most of the other characters seem similarly wooden and unnatural to me in terms of their behavior and reactions.  Luckily, the primary focus here is on the science; to this point, it feels kind of like an Asimov novel, if the characters were obtuse and opaque instead of colorful but cardboard.

Recommendation:  Do you like Asimov's novels for his logic problems and science?  If so, give this a go.  If not, probably not the book for you.

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