Links: 3/16/2017

I hope that you all know how much I love I Capture the Castle (spoiler: A LOT), so I found this essay on Cassandra’s hesitant faith and its echoes in Marilynne Robinson to be really intriguing. While I wanted the essay to go a step further in terms of drawing out its arguments & conclusion, it did illuminate a facet of one of my favorite books that I hadn’t considered much before.  (R. has been telling me to read Gilead for ages and I really should do that.)

Ever wondered what happens when Queen Elizabeth II eventually dies? The Guardian found out–and wrote a long, thorough read that looks at the protocol and what it suggests about the nation and its future.

Dr. Carla Hayden, the Librarian of Congress, is TOO MUCH, as are these two adorable children. On a day when the future looks horrifying & uncertain, it’s good to remember what we’re fighting for.

An excellent thread on happy/hopeful endings & the merits of comfort books.

FIYAH Magazine has released the results of a Black SFF Writer Survey. They “encourage readers to view the FIYAH Black SFF Writer Survey Report as a contextualization tool […] attempting to add what is probably the most neglected–and most important–perspective to the conversation: that of black writers themselves.” Diversify publishing on every level, friends.

Tiptree Awarrrrrrddddd AND one of my favorite books from last year (When the Moon Was Ours) won!

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In the Great Green Room: The Bold and Brilliant Life of Margaret Wise Brown by Amy Gary

After finishing Amy Gary’s biography of Margaret Wise Brown, In the Great Green Room, I have two major conclusions. 1) Margaret Wise Brown was clearly a brilliant, complex, fascinating character who would benefit from a great biography about her. 2) This is, sadly, not that biography. While I’m glad to have read more about Wise Brown and her life, this book suffers from a couple of huge flaws that made it intensely frustrating as a reading experience.

What we’re given here is a recounting of the events of Margaret Wise Brown’s life. This is done in a narrative style, which results in a rather breezy read, organized by years. Unfortunately, that same style also lends itself to the lack of contextualizing and critical thought which hampers the biography in several ways.

First, there is the absence of sourcing and citation. There are no footnotes or proper endnotes in this book. We are given a list of sources in the backmatter, separated by chapter, but they are not explicitly linked to any specific line or claim in the text itself. Nor are there any actual quotations within the text. It is a stream of assertions–Margaret said this, thought this, did this–with no background. Are these based on memories from her friends and family? Published or unpublished memoirs? Newspaper articles? Are the sources trustworthy or biased? It’s impossible to say.

I am writing this review having just read several excellent biographies of challenging and complex women, whose authors took great care in approaching source material and presenting it in a helpful context. I recognize that this has perhaps spoiled me, but the absence of that care made me send furious text messages to friends. (You know who you are, sorry not sorry.)

Gary’s biography seems curiously immune to any attempt to locate Wise Brown within her familial, social, or historical background. We are given the bones of her relationship with her parents–with a bonus shaming of both her mother and sister for their mental illnesses–but Gary doesn’t even try to look at why Margaret might have felt so estranged from Maude, what social pressures might have been weighing on Maude herself, or what wider cultural patterns are reproduced in Margaret’s warmer feelings for her brother and father as opposed to her mother and sister.

While this is generally annoying, on occasion it leads the book to repeat wholesale some really harmful attitudes. As I mentioned above, the characterization of both Maude and Roberta Brown as people who enjoyed using their depression to make those around them miserable shows up several times. (“At first, Margaret attempted to cheer her sister, but saw that, like their mother, Roberta relished layering a foul mood over happy occasions.”) It shows up again in Margaret’s sexism towards Bill Gaston’s other lovers (“Margaret’s name for women like this one was Slitch”). It is possible to show a person’s problematic attitudes while also making it clear that they are in fact problems. But this never happens–both of these attitudes are simply stated as if they are true, and without any primary source quotes to give them background, they weigh the text down with their casual cruelty.

Even a look at Margaret’s emotional state with regards to her own personal life and sexuality barely appears, aside from a factual recounting of her affairs with Bill Gaston and Blanche Oelrichs/Michael Strange. The historical context of queer relationships in the 1930s and 40s apparently isn’t relevant. Her last romance with Jim Rockefeller Jr, just at the end of her all-too-brief life, is given a total of about 20 pages, despite the fact that he wrote the forward for the book.

The lack of depth holds true for issues of class, as the emotional and social implications of the Brown family’s place on the edge of high society (connected to but not part of the Carnegie/Rockefeller clan) only comes up to contrast Margaret’s positive feelings towards the Carnegies with her attitude towards her own family. Further, the biography barely even attempts to trace the impact of Margaret Wise Brown on children’s literature, even though ostensibly this is one of the major threads of the book.

There’s an odd lack of connection within the text itself. Moments which should have been linked, either in reinforcement or in contrast, are left to stand on their own. For instance, at one point Gary tells a story about Margaret’s bungled reaction to learning that Esphyr Slobodkina (her friend and frequent collaborator) was Jewish, and her subsequent regret and attempted apology. Then, a bare four pages later, we’re introduced to Margaret’s eventual lover, Michael Strange, who was a prominent isolationist and vocal member of the America First Committee. It’s not that Gary dismisses the tension between these two moments; it’s quite simply that she doesn’t seem to think there is any tension there to dismiss.  What are we to make of Margaret Wise Brown’s complicated and contradictory self? This biography doesn’t seem to ask this question, let alone try to answer it.

In fact, because we only see Wise Brown at second hand, she remains a curiously opaque figure. At the very end of the book, Gary quotes a brief passage from one of Margaret Wise Brown’s journals–the only direct quotation from anyone in 240 pages–and that moment shines the brightest for me in memory. For the first and only time in the entire biography, I felt I had a sense of who Margaret Wise Brown was and how she thought. Had her words been allowed to tell her story, it would have been so much more powerful.

A good biography tells the story of its subject, fully and accurately. A great biography not only does that well; it also contextualizes and illuminates that subject. It presents a deeper understanding of the person, their life, and their world. And so, in reading, a great biography gives also a deeper understanding of ourselves. I hope that someday one is written about Margaret Wise Brown.

_________

Other reviews:

Biographies I do recommend:

  • James Tiptree Jr: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon by Julie Phillips
  • A Life in Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Missing Agents of WWII by Sarah Helm
  • The Spy Who Loved by Clare Mulley
  • Lady Byron and Her Daughters by Julia Markus

 

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Favorite covers of 2016

I thought it would be fun to look back at some of my favorite covers from last year! These are all 2016 releases, and it’s interesting to look back over some of the similarities and differences. (Illustrated covers seem to have been popular across age groups, for instance.)

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March 2017 releases

Lots of exciting releases in March! What are you looking forward to reading?

the-gauntletwhite-road-of-the-moonmiss-ellicotts-school

March 7

The Bone Witch by Rin Chupeco (YA)

 March 14

Hello, Universe by Erin Entrada Kelly (middle grade)

The White Road of the Moon by Rachel Neumeier (YA)

March 21

Miss Ellicott’s School for the Magically Minded by Sage Blackwood (middle grade)

The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi (adult SF)

March 28

Overturned by Lamar Giles (YA)

Just a Girl by Carrie Mesrobian (YA)

The Gauntlet by Karuna Riazi (middle grade)

Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor (YA)

 

 

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February 2017 round-up

The Spy Who Loved by Clare Mulley: Fascinating, enraging, heartbreaking biography of Christine Granville. Mulley does an excellent job of differentiating between different types of evidence, and of telling a very complex and contentious story. She treats Christine with warmth and respect, letting her be the flawed, complicated, and vivid person that she so clearly was. There are parts that had me in tears, and other parts that made me so angry with the world. Very, very well done.

The Swan Riders by Erin Bow: Every time I read a new book by Erin Bow, I know it’s going to be an incredibly emotional experience even if I’m not sure exactly what’s going to happen. The Swan Riders is no different. I read it in big gulps and cried so, SO much. While it’s perhaps a little bit slow to get started, the payoff is amazing. I loved it almost more than I can say.

Hawkeye: My Life as a Weapon: I’ve heard good things about this run of Hawkeye and I decided to read the first volume. I liked it okay? To be honest, I didn’t quite see what everyone else clearly does, which is a little bit disappointing. I’m not sure if I’ll try the next volume or just chalk it up to, “things that are not For Me.”

The Creeping Shadow by Jonathan Stroud: As I said on Litsy, this series keeps doing just enough to keep me coming back, but the charm is also starting to wear a bit thin. I want some kind of resolution to actually happen, rather than just having it continually teased for the next book. I’m not sure if I’ll be reading the rest of the series as they come out.

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin: I read this one with book club and it’s so delightful! I’d read it when it first came out and had fond impressions of it, but didn’t actually remember what it’s about. I really liked the way the stories are woven in, and the book itself is a beautiful object, from the illustrations down to the font and paper. The story itself is also lovely, with the themes of friendship and family. Plus: A DRAGON.

Spindle by E.K. Johnston: The sequel to A Thousand Nights, which I absolutely loved. I’m not sure if this is a case of too-high expectations or of me just not being in the right mood, but while I appreciated a lot about the story, it never quite emotionally clicked for me the way ATN did. I think perhaps the tension between the original fairy tale and the setting made me a little uncomfortable, in ways that ultimately jolted me out of the story just a little bit too much.

A Crown of Bitter Orange by Laura Florand: reread it, yes, even though I read it last month. I cried a lot again because it hits all of my emotional buttons.

Act Like It by Lucy Parker: Reread, since I really enjoyed Parker’s debut and wanted to revisit it before her second book came out!

Pretty Face by Lucy Parker: Somehow I had the wrong impression of what the central conflict in this one was going to be about–not at all the book’s fault! Once I reoriented a little bit, I really enjoyed the story. I especially appreciated that Parker shows the amount of work that goes into a West End production. While I wasn’t initially impressed with the “I know we shouldn’t, but oh well!” theme, the strength of the characters kept me reading and in the end I was charmed by Lily and Luc.

The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin: I appreciated the first book a lot, but The Obelisk Gate gave me so many Feelings. Jemisin digs deeper into the world she’s created, and also starts to weave in Nassun’s story. This worked really well for me, as we see Essun from a different perspective and begin to understand some of the personal ramifications her choices have caused. I can’t wait for the third book, even if I’m worried about what’s going to happen.

Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman: My awesome friend Ally recommended reading this book after I watched the movie recently, and I’m glad I did. It’s quite different from the adaptation–in some moments I preferred the film and in others I liked the book better. I definitely think the film has a clearer through-line, but the book is more nuanced and has a lovely dreamy quality to it.

Starry River of the Sky by Grace Lin: Also read this one with book club (we’re on a Grace Lin kick) and oh wow, this book was something. Grace Lin is really good at writing emotional journeys, and this one largely worked really well for me. (I have some personal hang-ups about forgiveness that got poked a bit.) There’s a lot I’m still thinking about and chewing on here.

Booked by Kwame Alexander: This is a thoughtful, engaging story. For me, however, it didn’t quite have the emotional impact of The Crossover. It’s perhaps not fair to compare the two, but it’s also very hard to not do so, especially when they were billed as companion books.

 

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January and February releases

I realize that it’s slightly ridiculous to publish this post when February is almost over at this point. On the other hand, I tend to be a completist and it feels wrong not to. And there are some books out in the last few months that look GREAT, so I want to highlight them anyway.


great-green-room binti stef-soto

January

Pathfinders: The Journeys of 16 Extraordinary Black Souls by Tonya Bolden (juvenile nonfiction)

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden (adult historical fantasy)

The Silver Gate by Kristin Bailey (mg fantasy)

In the Great Green Room by Amy Gary (biography)

History is All You Left Me by Adam Silvera (YA contemporary)

Stef Soto, Taco Queen by Jennifer Torres (mg contemporary)

Dreadnought: Nemesis by April Daniels (YA SF)

Crossroads of Canopy by Thoraiya Dyer (adult fantasy)

Caraval by Stephanie Garber (YA fantasy)

The Careful Undressing of Love by Corey Ann Haydu (YA fantasy)

Binti: Home by Nnedi Okorafor (SF novella)


piecing-me-together amberlough american-street

 

 

 

 

February

Empress of a Thousand Skies by Rhoda Belleza (YA SF)

Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly (adult historical fantasy)

Wintersong by S. Jae-Jones (YA fantasy)

Miranda and Caliban by Jacqueline Carey (adult fantasy)

The Last of August by Brittany Cavallaro (YA mystery)

We Are Okay by Nina LaCour (YA contemporary)

The Wish Granter by CJ Redwine (YA fantasy)

Piecing Me Together by Renée Watson (YA contemporary)

American Street by Ibi Zoboi (YA magical realism )

Long May She Reign by Rhiannon Thomas (YA fantasy)

A Conjuring of Light by V.E. Schwab (adult fantasy)

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Currently reading: 2-20-2017

imag3008_1I haven’t been writing here much, because I haven’t been reading nearly as much as I want to. Real life has been quite hectic recently, which inevitably ends up with a growing mountain of unread library books.

Having said that, I am also in the middle of reading some great books at the moment, so hopefully my dry spell is at an end.

Starry River of the Sky by Grace Lin, which I’m reading with librarian book club because Grace Lin is wonderful. I’m loving how beautiful these books are as objects–the illustrations, the weight of the paper, the whole thing is just lovely.

The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett, which I’m rereading with a couple of friends. I’m only a few chapters in but am already having severe Feelings, because Tiffany is the best and I love her forever the end.

The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin, which so far is promising to be even more complex and fascinating than the first book!

I’m also skimming through Susan Cooper’s biography of John Langstaff, which I’ve read before, for Reasons.

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