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For reasons we're not going to look at too closely, but may include moving, a work February that would not end - the first week of March certainly felt like Extended February - and hanging out with people who found these things relevant to our mutual interests,I read or reread rather a lot of Star Wars novels in February and March. I read Catalyst: A Rogue One Novel (James Luceno) (2016), Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Alexander Freed) (2016), and Star Wars: A New Dawn (John Jackson Miller) (2014). The first two made me ask, "were Star Wars novels better when I was younger because I had no judgement?" Catalyst made some really weird copy-editing choices; or wasn't edited that closely, take your pick. Incidentally, all the main characters annoyed me. The narrative fails to evoke the incredible sense of dislocation that one would associate with the Clone Wars or your nominal college best friend raining destruction on a planet you just left, or taking you to a war zone "so you can see what's going on" and seriously, there was a huge disjunct between action and emotional heft. The novelization was a novelization. I have very mixed feelings about it... okay, I'm mostly stuck on Freed's attempts to bring emotional depths to hardened characters, which I don't think evoked the reactions I think he aimed for. (Teardrops on my sniper rifle! That's... not how I would have gotten to that emotional beat.) A New Dawn was cute! Aimless drifter Kanaan Jarrus meets proto-Rebel with a cause Hera Syndulla. Banter and explosions follow. Miller did a good job evoking the swashbuckling mood of Star Wars, not bad for a novel based on a kid's animated TV show, and grounding the plot in the specifics of the mining planet Gorse and its moon Cynda.

I also reread Zahn's Specter of the Past and Vision of the Future. Specter is an awful lot of setup, and I've never been terrifically fond of the Thrawn impersonation arc, but the duology does a lot of clever little worldbuilding tricks. Zahn has several narrative quirks that I noticed more than usual this time. After a few rounds of someone using Mystryl-honed muscle to do a thing, I may have muttered something about shifting the moving boxes with yoga-trained strength. It really was that sort of February.

For the March vacation roadtrip, I got The Princess Diarist (Carrie Fisher) (2016) on audiobook. It was like bringing a friend on a long drive (and even I'm figuring out that San Francisco to Los Angeles is a really long drive), one who really wants to talk about this guy she banged, and whether they're still hooking up, or not, and oh my gosh, this is so awkward, and you really want to ask, "but, about the other ten things you just glanced by - your family, going to acting school, working on your mother's road show - can I hear about any of that? Those sound very interesting too." I didn't finish the audiobook before the end of vacation, and let it expire unfinished. Incidentally, I checked this out from the SFPL using the Axis 360 app. As of the time of writing, if the Axis 360 app has playback speed controls, I haven't found them. This is a huge minus for my audiobook experience.

The New Rabbi: A Congregation Searches For Its Leader (Stephen Fried) (2002): What it says on the cover. The rabbi of a prominent Philadelphia area synagogue; replacing him takes three years and a lot of turns.

The narrative is How Beth Shalom Searched For The New Rabbi, but Fried is a skilled journalist, so many other elements come out. The history of the Beth Shalom community. The retiring Rabbi Wolpe's history. The relationships between various fathers and sons: Fried's reconnection with Judaism after his father's death, the family Wolpe and the men who became rabbis in different eras of American Judaism, the mentor-mentee relationship between the senior rabbi and the junior rabbi at Beth Shalom.

Ninefox Gambit (Yoon Ha Lee) (2016): It's an unfortunate truth that space opera with a compelling protagonist who sometimes has great difficulty recalling who they are today, let alone who they were before they landed in the plot soup, is the sort of thing I am terribly fond of reading. Getting all that in prose that rises above utilitarian is indeed Christmas come early. Cut for space, no more explicit spoilers than the jacket text. )

The Book of Phoenix (Nnedi Okorafor) (2015): The story-in-a-story of the woman Phoenix, a speciMen, an artificially created being who calls herself the villain of the story. The framing story takes place in a future where the old world was destroyed by fire, and ends with the old man who finds the story of Phoenix choosing to bend it to his interpretation and worldview. The bulk of the story is Pheonix seeking freedom from the corporate scientists who made her, and who experiment on and coerce speciMens, until she reaches a breaking point.

This isn't the first work of Okorafor's fiction I read, so I noticed similarities to her other work: spiritual or magical powers, especially with plants; a focus on Africa; powerful women taking center stage. The framing story didn't quite work for me; other than chronology, and possibly one offstage character, there's very little that connects the framing story to the story Phoenix tells. The closest connection I can offer is the framing character bending Pheonix's story to his ends, as her creators and captors tried to shape her life to their goals. Since reading this, I've learned it's a prequel for Who Fears Death, so maybe reading these in publication order would have better informed the framing story.

I also tripped and reread Catherine Asaro's Primary Inversion (1995), Catch the Lightning (1996), and The Radiant Seas (1999). On a good day, the series is wildly uneven, with a lot of ideas not fully worked out, but face it, I am always going to have a soft spot for The Radiant Seas, which can be loosely described as "the one where someone steals a woman's husband, so she assumes military leadership of a star-spanning empire and launches a thousand ships to get him back".

Mira's Last Dance (2017) (Lois McMaster Bujold), the fourth Penric novella, also came my way. If you've read the first three you know what you're in for; if you haven't, I'd read them more or less in order. The Penric novellas are entertaining little stories, but I think I'd like them more if Penric got fewer superpowers from Desdemona.
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Feminism is Queer: the Intimate Connection Between Queer and Feminist Theory (Mimi Marinucci) (2010): Gender theory and I do best in small doses, so I like to check in every few years to see if my strong feelings on the importance of activism and the incestuous tedium of theory have abated. (Short answer: no.) I'd hoped for a survey of the current state of the field, but most of this slim volume is focused on getting readers up to speed on feminism and queer theory, devoting only the final chapter to Marinucci's analysis of their contemporary intersection. I liked that chapter, and I found the "Feminism Expanded and Explored" chapter useful as well, again as a reminder of the current state of the field from the author's perspective. For example, the reminder that feminism and LGBT are not intrinsically the same movement (see especially p90, on second-wave feminism "the personal is political" vs LGBT "in the privacy of my own house", and '70s arguments on constructed vs essentialist homosexuality in radical feminism vs gay circles). The book also does the "all answers are wrong" theory thing I dislike, finding reasons both gender-neutral and gender inclusive language are wrong (see especially p74). Good primer for a 101 or 201 level, but not what I was looking for.

Tales of the City (Armistead Maupin) (1978): A novel about a woman who comes to San Francisco on vacation and calls her parents to say she's not coming home. Note this was published in 1978, or I might have to change my username to Mary_Ann_Singleton.

The story follows Mary Ann's vacation, job search, and forays into the City social scene, expanding through her social circle, doubling back and rebounding. Part of the entertainment is tracking the inter-relationships: Mary Ann's boss's wife sees gynecologist Jon Fielding on the sly, after an extramarital affair; Jon has an affair with the boss, and used to date one of Mary Ann's housemates; the ex-boyfriend moves in and recognizes Mary Ann as the girl who hit on Jon in a previous chapter. And the entire novel is like that, a sense that within the city, there's some very small circles. Compared to that rich web of interrelationships, the characters themselves are sometimes thinly fleshed out, and there's a distinct element of "plot? What plot?" for much of the book. It made Tales very easy to pick up and put down, as I struggled with my own San Francisco, 2011, sometimes marvelling at the differences of 30 years, sometimes mapping locations against my own experience.

The Shadow Speaker (Nnedi Okorafor) (2007): YA fiction. Teenage Ejii has already seen one small revolution, when Jaa the Red Queen beheaded Ejii's father before his wives, children, and the rest of the village of Kwàmfa. When the shadows tell psychically-gifted Ejii she must leave Kwàmfa with Jaa to prevent a greater war, she packs her veil and goes on an adventure.

This is expanded from an earlier short story, or the short story was excerpted from The Shadow Speaker Either way, it inspired me to pick up one of Okorafor's other novels, Zarah the Windseeker. I liked it, and expected a similar colorful and semi-serious YA novel. The Shadow Speaker delivered, raising questions about the ambiguous powers of violence while keeping me entertained with the story of life after a world-altering event. It develops Ejii's character plausibly, as well as the character of her travel companion Dikeogu. Ejii begins the novel working through the uncertainties of life after a nominally Muslim patriarchy has been violently removed by a woman with a sword, and struggling with her Shadow Speaker gift, as well as her father's death. Jaa removed a tyrant by killing Ejii's father, while Ejii's mother, the chief's ex-wife, urges nonviolence as a key to lasting peace. As Ejii travels she learns more about her gifts, who she is, and the world around her. And what a world! Ginen's plant-tech makes another appearance, as does the future world history shaping Ejii's Africa. Slightly less lighthearted than Zarah the Windseeker, and perhaps more engaging for the older crowd because of that.

Between Two Worlds: Escape from Tyranny: Growing Up in the Shadow of Saddam (Zainab Salbi and Laurie Becklund) (2005): Nonfiction account of - well, read the (painfully unwieldly) title and subtitles. Salbi's parents were upper middle class socialities drawn into Saddam Hussein's social circle in the '70s, and compelled to stay there as Hussein drew more power, violence and corruption to him. Salbi narrates her experiences of living in physical comfort and emotional abuse in the wake of the Iraqi dictator's social circus, who she made herself into on international soil, and how she reconciled her childhood and experiences as an adult working with women survivors of war.

This is compelling like watching a snake, waiting for the moments when the terrors whispered at the edge of on-demand parties uncoil on center stage. Salbi's experiences are narrated through the double lens of a teenager's immediate and self-centered understanding of the world, refocused by answers elicited as an adult. It's a form of introspection I can empathize with. If anything, that's my significant criticism of the book. I expected I would have to reach more to understand where Salbi was coming from, but the narration is pitched for an American audience, and didn't stretch me the way I was expecting. Maybe not the best book to read on a gray San Francisco weekend, but compelling: a demand to bear witness to human suffering caused by the selfishness and greed of a few. This was published in 2005, when there was greater hope the US invasion of Iraq would have a quick, positive outcome; the thought of the last six years' events on the women and men of Baghdad mentioned in this book weigh on my heart.

Komarr (Lois McMaster Bujold) (1998): Fiction, reread. I didn't intend to burn through the entire novel, but compulsive readability and old habits sucked me in. This time around, I paid more attention to Ekaterin and Tien's relationship than Miles' antics. Trivia: Komarr was the first Bujold I bought new in hardcover.

Cryoburn (Lois McMaster Bujold) (2010): Fiction, reread. Usually, when I read a new novel by a favorite writer, I finish it, and dip back in over the next days or weeks to reread my favorite parts. Cryoburn is the only Bujold novel which I have finished and shelved with no "favorite bits" flip-through. It's not bad - at least, I liked it no less than Diplomatic Immunity, and more than the Sharing Knife novels - but I think the series had several very, very strong novels in short sequence - Mirror Dance, Memory, A Civil Campaign - and after expecting the giant spoiler since, oh, 1998, I was and am in shock at my lack of catharsis.

Spoiler time! )

This isn't the book I wanted, so Cryoburn suffers a great deal from misplaced expectations. On a second reading, I can sort of hear the thematic chord of frozen para-death, versus living to the max, but I still don't hear it clearly. On the one hand, I can see why the story is constructed that way: life happens, not when you expected it. On the other hand, I still feel the book's lighthearted, right until the shocking moment it's not, and the difference throws me badly.

Weather of the San Francisco Bay Region, Second Edition (Harold Gillam) (2002): Nonfiction. An overview of why SF weather does the wacky things it does. After passing this up more than once at the bookstores, I came to my senses and put it on hold at the library.

The short answer to the weather question still isn't that short, invoking global weather patterns, trends, and oscillations, Pacific ocean currents, and a heavy dose of local geography. Pitched at a teens-and-up lay audience, this gives a neat overview of a complex system, which I found an enticing appetizer. I'm hoping the "further reading" suggested at the end of the book is just as interesting.

My Fight for Birth Control (Margaret Sanger) (1931): Nonfiction memoir covering Sanger's crusade up to 1931. Technically finished on June 1, but I spent most of May slogging through this, I'm counting it. Single-minded, and not always good writing, sometimes listing a paragraph of supporters whose significance readers might guess from their inclusion. It's also tinged with a very pre-WW2 pro-eugenics agenda calling for "unfit" couples to avoid having children, as well as casual talk of "the races" fit to raise the hackles of modern activists. A pervasive reminder of the differences between eras. The memoir is as relentlessly focused as the title suggests; Sanger's personal experiences with marriage, motherhood, divorce (in 1913!) and remarriage are touched on only in the context of her drive for contraception. WW1 is primarily a barrier to easy travel on Sanger's trans-Atlantic American and European tours. The 1929 stock market crash and creeping Great Depression don't make the cut, even to impact fundraising.

Today I believe there are three great tests to character: sudden wealth, sudden power, and sudden publicity. (p197, 1967 Pergamon Press edition)

My Fight for Birth Control illuminates Sanger's professional agenda up to 1931, but any more personal insights must be imputed between the lines. For example, Sanger's divorce gets a page or two, and then there's no mention of romance until she remarries nine years later; at least one website claims she had intimate relations with several men, including H.G. Wells. In her memoir, Sanger goes out of her way to suggest otherwise, at least in Wells' case. It's a splendid reminder that memoirs usually have a purpose other than the perfect truth.

Biology trivia: Margaret Sanger isn't (directly) related to Frederick Sanger, the biochemisty who got a Nobel for dideoxy sequencing, the workhorse DNA sequencing method for a quarter of a century or so.

Numbers game: 8 total finished. 6 new, 2 reread; 5 fiction, 3 nonfiction.
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Wow, I really failed at serious nonfiction this month.

To Visit the Queen (Diane Duane): I am officially to old to read this novel. The flaws are more prominent than the entertaining bits. ) This particular novel seemed below Duane's usual standard, and I may be trying to see something more interesting than exists.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X (as told to Alex Haley) (Alex Haley, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz): The reinvention of a man, and the names he used in those reinventions: Malcolm Little, Detroit Red, Malcolm X, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. I picked this up because I was curious, and stayed because the two men - X and Haley - told a fascinating story. I am not sure I believe all of it, but I think it's a narrative told by a very smart survivor, and wish I'd read it when I was younger, preferably with a reading group who'd help tear apart the truth from the glosses.

The Book of Night with Moon (Diane Duane): Grand Central Terminal is a NYC hub for trains... and other means of transit. The wizardly team of cats that maintains the worldgates of Grand Central troubleshoot at a deeper level than their norm. Entertaining and coherent; the themes and plot are well aligned.

Zahrah the Windseeker (Nnedi Okorafor): YA novel; teenage girl with special powers braves the Forbidden Forest to find a fabled cure for her dying friend.

Adorable coming of age story. Light, entertaining, predictable (think fast! Will Zahrah's quest fail and her friend die?), and oh, on another planet with magic (magic?) and lots of plant-based tech. It's a straightforward and not particularly subtle story about exploring and growing into the unknown; I'd recommend it for people looking for YA.

I first ran into Nnedi Okorafor's writing in a short story collection a couple of years ago, and thought the story interesting enough that I wanted more, but my library failed me. Eventually, I remembered ILL. So here is a takeaway thought: explore your own environment, and use ILL early and often.

To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee): Childhood classic, which I don't really remember reading. I am now old enough to appreciate Lee's dry sense of humor, but I think I am missing the point, because I don't see what makes this book, above many other books, a literary gem.

Overcoming Underearning: Overcome Your Money Fears and Earn What You Deserve (Barbara Stanny): The phrase "throw the book against a wall" is a custom I generally honor in the breach, especially with library books. This is the second book in all of my 26 years which I have closed, contemplated, and deliberately hurled across the room. I really question financial books which promise to raise your income and lower your weight, and I only regret not throwing this across the room sooner.

Numbers: 5 (+ 1 thrown across the room) total. 2 new, 3 rereads; 4 fiction, 1 (mostly?) nonfiction.


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