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Song of a Traveller: the courtesan's salon - [Book Reviews] Poets and other people with swords
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[Book Reviews] Poets and other people with swords
I picked up Andrea Lankford's "Ranger Confidential: Living, Working, and Dying in the National Parks" as an impulse purchase at REI before Pike's Peak... I figured I'd appreciate a ranger memoir, and I was out of things to read on the plane back home. I enjoyed the read, and in places it's uproariously funny, but there's also a whole lot of stress and difficulty that the rangers encounter. (Ludicrously commonplace and jawdropping sexism was the hardest for me to take... this is all within my working life, and is mostly the kind of thing I've been fortunate enough to avoid. It's awful to hear about people who had it far worse than I did, from people who by all rights should know better.) But it avoids becoming thoroughly depressing by virtue of success... the women who have such a rough time of it kick ass, run rescues, make arrests, and basically win. I shouldn't have been surprised that my friend whom I pressed the book on after I'd finished knew some of the folks in it. (I have awesome hiking buddies.) So it was an extra pleasure to hear her take on that time and place, and I look forward to seeing what she thinks of it as well. It was sort of an airplane book, but I liked it anyway. Three and a half cabin-chewing doom rabbits out of five.

I read the right blogs to hear about new releases in the spec-poetry world, and so I snapped up "The Moment of Change: An Anthology of Feminist Speculative Poetry" as soon as it came out and then savored it over the next few months. (I actually lent it to a friend of mine before I had finished it, but that's okay... it's one of those books that you can read and digest slowly.) I am the target audience for this collection; they had me from the “My feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit” quote in the introduction. [grin] It doesn't hurt that several friends of mine have poems in there (ObBias!), but I was delighted to discover that several of my most favorite poems in there were from authors entirely new to me. It's one of the best things about anthologies -- I can now go stalk the works and worlds of entirely new poets. Said new-to-me favorites included Vandana Singh's "Syllables of Old Lore", Emily Jiang's "Self-Portrait", and Patricia Monaghan's "Journey To The Mountains Of The Hag". Five spacefaring neural networks out of five.

From the frontiers back to the airplane books... "Gates of Fire" was a fluff novel set through the ostensible viewpoint of one of the few survivors of the battle of Thermopylae. While it did present an at times entertaining fictionalization of one of ancient history's more famous stands, it didn't impress me too deeply either as a work of fiction or as a nod to the classics. It wasn't awful, but I think it hardly deserves all the "a modern classic!" praise on its back cover. The protagonist is at times tedious, the Spartans often seem like just a bunch of jerks rather than sympathetic heroes defying the invading armies of Persia, and by this time next year I will probably have forgotten that I read it. The most sympathetic character to me was the half-Spartan slave who wanted to defect. Two lambdas out of five. (Like pizza, even a bad fluff novel about Sparta is still pretty good.)

I waited for years for a copy of "The Bamboo Sword And Other Samurai Tales" to become available on Paperback Swap, and my patience was eventually rewarded. To my delight, it's just the kind of read I was hoping for -- evocative, subtle, often hilarious if you favor understated humor. The characters often develop through the course of each short story, but this isn't pounded into your head -- rather, it's an outgrowth of their interaction with each other and the slow forces of everyday life. The author does exceedingly well at picking out the remarkable moments of change within the quotidian; I'm thrilled to see Shuhei Fujisawa available in English finally! Four and a half reformed thieves out of five.

I also really enjoyed "The Steel Seraglio", though in a very different fashion. It's a multivoice novel told through the perspectives of many characters, and I'm a sucker for that when done well. (It's done well here.) I'm fond of stories interwoven with each other to form one large tapestry of a tale, and you have that here as well. The great majority of the point-of-view characters are female, and there's no shortage of clever heroines, wise heroines, or effective heroines. Rem was one of my favorites, but you pretty much had me at heroine librarian there. The world they find themselves in is disquieting at times and often morally complicated -- one of the strengths of the novel is how it presents many different perspectives as reasonable and sympathetic, but does not allow those differences to paralyze the forward progress of the plot or the cleanness of the narrative. I felt all the major characters that I cared about had enough screen time and a satisfying resolution, despite the ages-of-legends feel that you get from the narration out of a distant time. Four and a half opportunities seized out of five.

I read "The Measure of a Mountain: Beauty and Terror on Mount Rainier" as a loan from varina8 and found it a helpful disabuser of any climbing ambitions I might have have. [grin] By turns educational, lyrical, and risible, Barcott does an excellent job of sympathetically expressing the ridiculous side of a fascination with nature. I learned a good deal about the land and ecosystems surrounding Rainier, as well as its place in the cultures of the Pacific Northwest through the present day. I felt sorry for Barcott as he got rained on, and rained on, and rained on. And, well, I laughed. But it was a sympathetic kinship-of-spirit laughing, I swear. [grin] Three and a half unexpected hiker encounters out of five.

"The Secret History of the Mongol Queens: How the Daughters of Genghis Khan Rescued His Empire" was a loaner from mimerki. I didn't realize when I picked it up that it was the same author as "Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World", but it makes perfect sense in retrospect. I had been aware of much of the post-Genghis history of struggles for power in the empire he left, but somehow in the versions that I read the daughters that were heir to so much of Genghis's power were left out entirely or had their roles vastly minimized -- it was the power struggles among Genghis's sons that were the most well documented. This book was utterly fascinating for addressing the role of women in the Mongol empire, how that shifted over the generations immediately before and after Genghis, and how that was tied to the success or failure of maintaining diplomatic ties with many of the subject nations. I had heard of Manduhai before reading this, but now I think I understand her emergence from the power struggles of the time much better. An excellent and accessible read; four and a half conquering queens out of five.

Roughly a decade or so after everyone else did, I have read "The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency". I was entirely unsure that I was going to enjoy it, but I did. I admit that I liked the mysteries of the everyday more than the subplot at the end about kidnapping children for witchcraft -- that was a little more grisly than I had been expecting in a detective novel. (Somehow getting eaten by alligators is a lot more okay. The alligator is not under any obligation to know better.) I doubt I'll go way out of my way to read the other thirteen novels in the series or however many there are, but I wouldn't turn them down if I happened across them. Three new clients out of five.

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Comments
roseneko From: roseneko Date: October 24th, 2012 02:16 pm (UTC) (Link)
Several of these sound awesome and I may have to pick them up. Thanks for the recommendations.
thewronghands From: thewronghands Date: October 24th, 2012 07:29 pm (UTC) (Link)
I hope you enjoy them! I write about books in large part because I love discussing them with people who have read them, and because I pick up book recommendations from my friends who post similar things.
madrun From: madrun Date: October 24th, 2012 08:05 pm (UTC) (Link)
Re: Secret History of the Mongol Queens

There is a similar book about the Mughals that you might enjoy- it tends to blow people preconceptions about the relative power of women within the Mughal harem out of the water.
thewronghands From: thewronghands Date: October 24th, 2012 08:44 pm (UTC) (Link)
Ooh! Title/link/pointer, please?
katestine From: katestine Date: October 26th, 2012 03:14 am (UTC) (Link)
What an interesting collection of books: I've been carrying Gates of Fire around and may take it to DC tmw. I have Mongol Queens on my list and almost picked it up during marathon training, but was scared off by the Amazon reviewer who said it was mainly focused on Manduhai.

I'm usually not interested in reading mountaineering history/accounts, but your description makes Measure of a Mountain sound like good prep for another summit attempt.
thewronghands From: thewronghands Date: October 26th, 2012 05:09 am (UTC) (Link)
"Mongol Queens" is maybe 1/4 to 1/3rd Manduhai. She's certainly got a sizable section devoted to her, but I wouldn't say she dominates the book. It goes chronologically from Genghis Khan's daughters on through the generations, pretty much.

"Measure of a Mountain" is more about someone mostly like me, a reasonable hiker interested in nature, who somehow decides he's going to summit. It's not the focus of the book -- the book is about all of Rainier, not just the peak, and devotes page space proportionate to area, roughly. So there are long sections on him trying the Wonderland circumnavigation, and on hiking up to Muir and back down, and things like that. His summit attempt is a chapter or so out of the whole, but is not the focus of the book by any means. But even reading that was enough to make me think "yeah, no, I can be cold and miserable just fine on my own without needing to do that to myself". Somehow, sleeping badly in rotten conditions in order to try for a summit bid is the fun-breaker. (As opposed to sleeping badly in rotten conditions nearer sea level for SAR, which is, um, something something not fun but SPARTA. Or something.) So I don't know if that's encouragement or discouragement to read the book, but it is mainly about hiking on, near, and around Rainier, even if it is ultimately also about hiking up Rainier.

Still, if you do come out here to try it, let me know if you have any spare time! I'd be happy to drive wherever and meet you, work schedule permitting, and/or introduce you to that jerky shop everyone loves.
lawnrrd From: lawnrrd Date: October 26th, 2012 03:22 am (UTC) (Link)
I liked Gates of Fire, although I admit I'm having trouble figuring out why. I felt like I was getting insights into what the Spartans valued and how they looked at war, and maybe that was a big part of it.
thewronghands From: thewronghands Date: October 26th, 2012 05:11 am (UTC) (Link)
Ah, yeah, I had a good bit of that from Classics. Have you read Paul Cartledge's "The Spartans"? He's a very reputable scholar and I was thoroughly delighted when I happened across that one. Nonfiction rather than fiction, but probably the best book for what you're talking about that I know of.
rose_lemberg From: rose_lemberg Date: December 23rd, 2012 03:51 am (UTC) (Link)
I am very glad that you enjoyed MoC!

thewronghands From: thewronghands Date: December 26th, 2012 09:33 am (UTC) (Link)
Me too! [grin] Thanks so much for putting out such an enjoyably thought-provoking collection of works!
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