Of Fear and Strangers

I received this via NetGalley.

What an absolutely remarkable book. It’s not quite what I was expecting – which was a history of, I guess, where xenophobia has occurred, and maybe it consequences. But more interestingly that that, this is a history of the very concept of xenophobia. It does use examples of historical xenophobia – of course it does; you can’t discuss what the word means without showing what it has looked like. But it’s more psychological and philosophical than I was expecting, as a way of getting to the guts of why humans can react so poorly towards strangers, and how we have tried to explain that to ourselves.

And the first thing I learned is that ‘xenophobia’ as a word is brand new. Like, end of the 19th century new. Makari goes through his whole journey of discovery about this – detailing what he read and what explanations he chased down – in what almost amounts to a thriller in terms of sudden clues popping up. This was the first hint that not only was this going to be fascinating information, but also that the style was going to keep me engaged and keep me ploughing through what otherwise might have been overwhelming, both intellectually and emotionally. This was also building on a very personal opening to the book: Makari outlines his own family’s experience of being “xenos” – strangers – descended from Lebanese ancestors, living in America, experiencing the dismissal of “Arabs” and wondering about his family’s place in the world. Being published in 2021, as well, and of course, the question of xenophobia and how “we” react to the “stranger” remains as tragically relevant today as it has been at any time in the past.

Part 1 explores “The Origins of Xenophobia” – where the word originates, how it was used to describe the so-called Boxer Rebellion in China – and therefore the ‘mad’ reaction of Chinese people to Westerners and all the ‘enlightenment’ they could bring. And then how the word was used in colonial contexts – xenophobia is a product of the inferior mind, because ‘they’ don’t understand what ‘we’ (colonisers) are bringing, and they don’t know any better than to be hostile! And then on through Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, flipping that idea of xenophobia around and showing how colonisers might be the scared ones… and then on into discussion of immigration. Sadly, that connects really early on with Jewish migration, and then of course the book leads into the Holocaust.

Part 2, then, explores “Inside the Xenophobic Mind.” I have neither philosophical nor psychological training, so this part both taught me many new things, and was also surprisingly approachable. Well, approachable in terms of understanding in general, although again confronting in some parts – like the experiments to train kids into having phobias to try and understand how such fears can develop… and also because some of the philosophical aspects definitely went over my head. So this section, too, made me think much more both about xenophobia as a concept but also about how different groups have approached the desire to understand it – external or internal reasons, love and projection and can we ever truly know someone else… and so on.

I would heartily recommend this to people who are interested in why humans act the way they do, for people seeking an understanding of the way the world is and has been; whether you’re an historian or not, whether you’ve knowledge of psychology or not, Makari makes difficult concepts relatively straightforward to grasp. And he doesn’t claim to be able to explain all of humanity, but the book does suggest a range of ways that we might try to think about ourselves, and our neighbours, and our leaders… and think about why we react the way we do. And that can only be a good thing, right? In fact, I think that as many people as possible should read this book, so that we can be much better at talking about these things and be a little less defensive.

How I Became a Tree

I read this courtesy of NetGalley.

This is definitely not the sort of book that I can read all in one hit. I took me several weeks, in fact, of dipping in and out. But that’s ok, because this is in no sense a narrative, or a memoir, or something that particularly requires you to remember pertinent details from one moment to the next. Instead, this is a wide-ranging book on the idea of how people relate to trees (and plants in general), how humans are like and unlike trees, what we can learn from them, how various humans have written about or otherwise interpreted trees, and what it might mean for a human to be more like a tree.

Like the editor at Yale who decided to pick this up for their press – it had already been published in India – I too was captivated by the first line: “At first it was the underwear. I wanted to become a tree because trees did not wear bras.”

PREACH.

Reading it in 2021 as I did, perhaps the idea that most (I’m sorry) took root (really, I am sorry) was the idea of tree time. That tight schedules and being rushed and hurried / harried and always needing to be places and do stuff at speed is just… not fun. (Especially when the pandemic makes all of that also feel like running in place.) Tree time, though? Trees, in Roy’s words, show “disobedience to human time”.

I don’t agree with everything that Roy talks about here – I don’t even agree that all of the questions she asks are relevant or useful. But I appreciate her asking them nonetheless, and therefore forcing me to consider them whether I want to or not.

Chapters range across a meditation on why flowers are seen to be attractive but not trees, in art and how children are taught to draw or paint; the ideas of x-raying plants, what the way nature is studied says about humans, what it might mean to have sex with a tree, what death means for trees and how religions connect to and reflect on trees and forests. And a lot more. Roy writes in the first person – this is an intensely personal book for all it’s not a memoir; Roy examines her own memories, and reactions, and hopes and intentions and fears, throughout the book. After all, it’s her musing on becoming a tree that instigates the whole thing; she reflects on her childhood experiences of trees, and how that relationship changes as she gets older; commenting on what it means to be childless and to be ageing, to be in a relationship and part of a family, and how those things are like and unlike the world of trees.

Aside from the meandering consideration of trees and how humans can be / are not like them, one thing that was particularly interesting for this Anglo Australian was the lack of cultural touchstones that I am familiar with. There were a few – a reference to Shakespeare here, Brecht there, DH Lawrence and Ovid. But much of the literature and art and philosophy referenced was foreign to me, which is only right since Roy is writing in India, and comes (I think) from a Bengali background. There are Hindi and Buddhist texts, Indian philosophers and authors… and a bunch of western authors, too, whom I’d never heard of because I don’t go in for philosophy or botany in any great way.

This was an intriguing, insightful, challenging and wide-ranging consideration of plants and humanity. Well worth reading if you’re feeling like humans need to, or could, learn how to be different.

A Girl Made of Air

I read this courtesy of NetGalley.

Well.. This was … quite weird. And consequently, kinda hard for me to review. Let me get some thoughts down:

  • I don’t tend to go in for circus stories. I have never been fascinated by the circus as a place, so I don’t gravitate to stories about them. Not that I hate them! But I have no comparisons to make as to whether this is a good circus story or not. The circus is not made out to be a deeply loving family or a wonderful magical place… magical, perhaps, and certainly for the punters, but wonderful? Not always.
  • The structure of the story is intriguing, and one of the aspects that I really enjoyed it. It opens with what might be a dream or might be a memory. Then moves on to an interview, with the child from the first part now an older woman, talking about her family and her life as a funambulist – a tightrope walker. The interview hides as much as it reveals. The rest of the book then swings between the older women reflecting on her life and the experience of doing that reflecting, and then back in time to the experiences she is re-living.

There’s a biography being revealed, clearly. But it’s also a rumination on the nature of memory and the nature of family and the possibilities of, the realities of, memory. This aspect – how it makes the reader think about how we tell our own stories – was probably, for me, the most intriguing aspect.

  • There’s a lot about parents here. The failures of parents and who is a parent – that it’s not just about biology – and what parents can or should or can’t be. What children can, should, and shouldn’t know about their parents. And how all of those things (can) have an impact on children…
  • There is also, unsurprisingly!, a lot about learning to walk on a tightrope. As someone who really doesn’t like heights, that was both terrifying and fascinating. But it’s really not the focus – it’s a means to an end, really.
  • Overall I enjoyed this story, although it’s very much not my usual sort of thing.

Inhibitor Phase

*high pitched keening noise*

New Alastair Reynolds. Set in the Revelation Space universe.

*high pitched keening noise*

I received this book from the publisher at no cost. Trade paperback available August 31, $32.99.

In case the above reaction wasn’t enough to give it away, I am a verrrry big fan of Alastair Reynolds. Which isn’t to say I love everything he’s written; I haven’t. However, Revelation Space continues to be one of my very favourite sequences of books, ever, so the idea of another in that universe… well. /fans self.

The preface suggests you could read this cold, and I guess you could – certainly enough other books ask you to work pretty hard, with random names like Conjoiner thrown at you with little explanation. There’s a joy in discovering what it’s all about! For me, though, a huge part of the joy came from remembering all the details of the Revelation Space universe, so I really have no idea what it would be like to go in with no knowledge.

This story is set later than almost all of the other Revelation Space stories. Humanity is on the brink thanks to an external threat – and there’s an interesting connection here to the Cixin Liu’s Remembrance of Earth’s Past stories, with the idea of profligate species spewing out radio and other signals and just letting everyone who might be out there hear you… and that maybe that’s not a good idea.

Miguel de Ruyter is sheltering with a small band of humans on a very inhospitable rock. As always happens, a stranger comes to town… and things go very wrong very quickly.

People aren’t who you expect, mistakes are made, epic crises are experienced and occasionally averted, light years are travelled, planets are visited. Discoveries, chases, explosions; courage is found and choices are made.

I loved it. I loved it a lot. I love the way it talks about humanity (very broadly interpreted) in all its messy, confusing, loving, courageous, selfish and impossible character. I love the grand scope and the narrow detail and the insistence that there must be room for both. I love the writing and the characters and I’m so excited that it exists.

The Hood, by Lavie Tidhar

I received this book courtesy of NetGalley.

This was… completely bonkers.

Some context: I studied medieval history at bit at uni, and I also did a subject about medievalism in modern society; I did an essay on Robin Hood. I am by no means an expert, of course, but I have some awareness of the whole mythology. Which is why I was so excited to read this. I had loved what Tidhar did with the Arthurian stuff in By Force Alone, and I was wide-eyed at what he would do here. The Robin Hood stuff is so wide-ranging – in history and in modern incarnation (Disney’s version is still the best) – that there’s just so much to play with.

Fascinatingly, Tidhar begins with Maid Marian, and goes somewhere I didn’t expect at all. And then goes to Will Scarlett, and likewise. And then to Rebecca – riffing off Ivanhoe – and… well, there’s a very long section of the story that’s exploring things other than a man with a bow and arrow and Lincoln green. In fact, I would argue that “Robin Hood” is probably the least important main character in the entire narrative. Which is a very interesting choice and one I’m still chewing over. Many of the characters recognisable from old and new stories make an appearance – Guy of Gisborne, the sheriff of Nottingham, Sherwood Forest, Little John and Tuck and Much the miller’s son – although perhaps not as you would expect them (that aspect I’m completely happy with).

The different sections, especially in perhaps the first third, are almost like stand-alone ballads; and maybe that’s intentional, reflecting the structure of those early, medieval ‘Gestes’. But it is somewhat disconcerting if you come to this expecting a straightforward “Robin Hood story” – because it definitely isn’t. I have no problem with this idea; disjointed narratives can be brilliant. Many of the early ideas do eventually have their pay-off later in the narrative, and often in quite clever ways; but it often didn’t feel like enough of a pay-off given the set up. I think perhaps there’s not enough of a crescendo – I finished the book feeling a little flat, a little lost – surprised: “is that it?”

(For those having read By Force Alone: that too was somewhat chaotic, but to me it always seemed like a coherent chaos. In contrast, I think The Hood doesn’t always succeed in coherence, narrative or character wise.)

Don’t get me wrong, I did enjoy the book. It’s a rollicking ride from the Anarchy of Stephen and Matilda’s civil war of the 1140s through to the 2nd, 3rd, 4th Crusades; Tidhar incorporates a surprising and unexpected amount of English history that’s usually not connected to the Robin Hood stories at all, commenting along the way. There’s an excellent range of characters, all stubbornly themselves and threatening to break away and live their own damned lives, thanks all the same. It’s not always easy to read – Tidhar clearly has a love of language and he likes playing with repetition and surprising slang – but it’s also not a slog.

I have no regrets about having read The Hood, and I will read whatever books Tidhar puts out in the Matter of Britain series (I think I heard it described as a quadrology, but I can’t for the life of me figure out what else will be included).

Sicilia: A love letter to the food of Sicily

I received this book from the publisher, Bloomsbury Absolute, at no cost. RRP $52.99; it’s out now.

Firstly, LOOK at that cover. This is a beautiful book just to look at, from the cover through to the internal images. So if you’re a person who buys cookbooks to ogle – and more power to you – this is a good one.

Secondly, the text: it’s engagingly written. The intro gives a very potted history of the island, focusing on what different cultures brought with them; then also an overview of the geography, including what I didn’t know which is that ‘Sicily’ also includes all the little islands around it. The stories at the start of each recipe – I know there’s a proper name, but I can’t remember it – aren’t too long, are generally relevant, and (if you’re in a hurry) can be safely ignored with regard to the actual cooking.

Thirdly, of course, the recipes. Chapters include Bread, Fritti (fried things), Pasta and rice, Vegetables, Fish, Meat, Sweets, Granita and ice creams, and Sauces and Basics. I’ve cooked a few things…

  • I started with some things I was already familiar with, because it’s pandemic time – in fact I think I cooked some during a lockdown – and my emotional energy for adventure was low. So:
    • Grilled Bavette (I think I used rump steak) with braised courgettes, mint, chilli and gremolata – a delicious way to do zucchini, and a tasty sauce for the meat;
    • Whole Roast Chicken with fennel [I don’t think Australia has the wild variety he specifies], lemon leaves, garlic and bay – the chicken is placed on top of fennel and shallots, which was delicious;
    • Sfincione – that is, Sicilian-style pizza – which in my lexicon is more like focaccia, being more like bread (quite thick and fluffy) rather than thin and crusty. We didn’t follow the instructions for the toppings. The base itself was very tasty; I can imagine serving it more like bread than like pizza;
    • Pork, Chilli and Marjoram Polpette cooked with lemon and lemon leaves – they’re meatballs. After the meatballs are browned they’re braised in the oven with stock and lemon leaves, and it was totally delicious;
    • Strawberry, Almond and Rosewater Cake – I replaced the strawberries with cherries, because I had some in the freezer from summer. Also an absolutely delicious outcome.
  • AND THEN I decided to do something ridiculous, which was: Spiced Lamb Arancini with peas, broad beans and mint. This was ridiculous because I’ve never done anything deep-fried, and the number of steps in the process (make the risotto, cook the lamb, mix it together, flour / egg / bread crumbs and THEN fry). They were delicious. Just wonderful. And I don’t think I’ll ever make them again because I’m just not convinced it’s worth my time.

There are heaps more recipes here that I can imagine cooking, so I am very happy to have this in my life. The only potential issue for Australian cooks – and this is a problem with us, not the author – is the fish section. The recipes call for specific fish (cod, mackerel, sardines) and I don’t know whether they’re all a) easily available here, b) have the same names (I know those ones do), or c) whether other fish can be easily substituted. Still, highly recommended.

The Gilded Page

I read this book courtesy of NetGalley.

I loved this book.

I already love medieval manuscripts and the stories that go along with them – about marginalia and the sheer effort that goes in to making one. What Wellesley has done here is look at manuscripts to understand the people who made them, used them, saved them, and occasionally caused their destruction. I read this in uncorrected proof, as an ebook (and there’s some twisty lineage there from hand-written sheepskin to pixels), so I’m not sure whether the published version will have images, but that’s about the only thing that would make this even more of a joy to read.

An overview of the chapters will show just why this is such a fabulous book.


Chapter 1: Discoveries. aka “near heart-attack-land at the idea that the Book of Margery Kempe was nearly not found.” She uses just a couple of manuscript discoveries to show just how contingent our 21st century knowledge of, awareness of, and possession of such manuscripts is.
Chapter 2: Near Disasters. Imagine me having heart palpitations at the fire in Ashburnham House, home of the Cotton collection and various other rather important bits of parchment. As above with the contingency, with added flames.
Chapter 3: Patrons. Who wanted stories written about themselves, and who wanted their own copies of particular books (Henry VIII annotated his Book of Psalms. I have no problem with this, other than it reveals his colossal ego, equating himself with David.)
Chapter 4: Artists. The images added to some manuscripts make them incredible works of art. Wellesley examines what is known about some of the people who did this work, their inspiration and their methods.
Chapter 5: Scribes. Who did the physical act of writing… and that some of them were women.
Chapter 6: Authors and scribes. Probably one of the hardest things for moderns to grasp is the lack of the concept of ‘author’ in the medieval period. If a student copies a quote without a reference, they’re in trouble; 700 years ago, someone could copy out a story from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and stick it in their own collection of stuff with nary an acknowledgement (yes I am aware this happens today; it was less of a cause for hue and cry back in the day, for various reasons). Figuring out exactly who was the author of various things is the work of a lifetime for some historians.
Chapter 7: Hidden Authors… basically carries on a similar idea from Chapter 6, but in particular looks at works written for (and by?) anchorites – people who had decided to get themselves walled away, to devote themselves more fully to Christ.

The book’s intrigue – who wrote it? who sold it? why do we only have one copy? It’s got feminism – women wrote and read and commissioned and created. It’s suffused with a love of books and reading, it’s a celebration of books as objects, and it ends with Gutenberg and that weird interstitial period where some manuscripts were created by copying out the text from a printed book. And the author’s voice is present throughout, which I found a lovely touch: what it was like to view a manuscript at the British Library, or a discovery as an undergrad, or an experience learning about the making of parchment.

This is a wonderful book about books. Entirely accessible to the non-medievalist, in fact a great entry for those with no real conception of the medieval manuscript.

Buried Memories, Simon R Green

I received this via NetGalley.

I have not read any of the previous Ishmael Jones books; the NetGalley description doesn’t make it clear that this is part of a series. However, I am a long-time fan of Simon R Green, and as with many of his other books he provided enough background – without it being a massive info-dump – that I was able to carry on my merry way and enjoy the book regardless.

Ishmael Jones arrived on Earth in 1963; his dying spaceship turned the sole survivor into a human and wiped his memory of what had come before. Over the next few decades – covered, I assume, in the books I haven’t read – Jones has both tried to hide his identity from nefarious groups who would like to exploit aliens/their technology, and also investigated mysteries himself – because Simon R Green never missed an opportunity to do clever things with mysteries and whodunnits. In this narrative, Jones has realised he was not, in fact, the only survivor of his crash, and he’s going back to where it all started to try and get some resolution.

There’s banter, a spooky rural English village, murders, twists and turns and double-crosses, and ultimately a fairly satisfying conclusion.

Also, any book that opens with “Call me Ishmael” (except for the original) is going to get an appreciative eye-roll from me.

This was fun. Fans of Simon R Green know what they’re getting. Possibly not the place for those new to Green to begin their adventures (I would say that’s the Nightside books; the Blue Moon stories are a different kettle again).

Assassin’s Orbit

I received this via NetGalley.

It’s described as “Golden Girls meets The Expanse with a side of Babylon 5”. I admit, that certainly grabbed my attention. I’ll come back to the tagline, because I’m going to assume that it was invented by a PR person, rather than the author.

The context: many humans fled Earth generations ago, and colonised various planets. The action here is split between a station above the planet Ileri, and the planet itself – which is about to decide whether to join a conglomeration of other planets, or stay neutral. The story opens with several murders, all of which seem to have happened to enable the assassination of one government minister. Investigating that crime kickstarts everything and introduces the key characters, in particular private investigator Noo Okereke. Political manoeuvring would make for a nicely complex story by itself but of course that’s not enough – there’s an even larger issue at play, which is gradually revealed.

I really enjoyed this novel. One of the key things that intrigued me were the characters: they’re overwhelming female, and many of them are “older”: they’re not just out of school, or starting in their first jobs. Instead, Noo is a seasoned investigator; you can basically hear her going all “I’m too old for this shit”. The spy is likewise an old hand, and the police chief is, well, just that – she’s worked her way up the ranks. It was fantastic to have people – and let’s be honest, women in particular – whose expertise makes sense because they’ve earned it, who can draw on experience and hard-won judgement, in order to make decisions. And who know when they’re making a probably bad decision but are willing to go do it because sometimes it’s the only choice you’ve got. And aside from affording them that expertise, their ages were largely irrelevant; it’s basically not commented on by anyone. They’re just… allowed to be competent.

The one thing that occasionally annoyed me was the pace – that it felt uneven. Sometimes it seemed to go slowly for no reason, and sometimes it sped up so that I’d (metaphorically) blink and huge things had happened. That made reading a bit of a chore sometimes.

OK. So. This tagline. Look, I can see why someone might think it was a good one – it’s catchy as heck. But it’s just not accurate. I can only assume that “Golden Girls” was the only example the person could think of that features “old” ladies actually doing stuff, which is a whole issue in and of itself. But GG was about four women living together, with some knowledge of each other, and it’s centred on that idea of sharing each other’s lives. That’s just not how this novel works. There are two women who have worked together for years – but they barely interact in the novel. Older women are the focus of the action, and many of them come together throughout the story to work together. But that’s not GG. The Expanse? Well, only insofar as humans are off Earth and hanging out on other planets. But… no other aspect of The Expanse is present. And Babylon Five? Well, it’s set on a space station, which this is also to a great extent; and there’s a threat of war, but it’s from other humans. So. Yeh. Tagline is deceptive.

This really is a fun and intriguing novel. Some clever ideas, generally fun characters, it doesn’t drag (usually), complexity of plot matched with chases and explosions. No regrets reading it.

Phoenix Extravagant, by Yoon Ha Lee

I received this to review via NetGalley.

I haven’t felt especially like reading big fantasy, or dragon fantasy, for quite a while now. Even when the author was Yoon Ha Lee, whose Machineries of Empire I love exorbitantly, I just thought… nah.

More fool me. Lucky that books don’t disappear forever, and that I have now been able to read this.

Jebi is an artist. All they want to do is make art. They apply for a position as an artist within the Ministry of Art, which will mean art but also working for the conquerors of their nation. When they fail to get that position, they must find an alternative option if they want to keep eating… and this leads to twists and turns they never expected, discovering friends and enemies and further difficulties of life in a conquered land.

This is set in a secondary world but it seems to me that Jebi’s home is analogous to Korea, with Japan as the conqueror, although it’s not a direct parallel. There’s magic, usually fairly low key and initially I wasn’t sure if it was intended to be ‘just’ superstition (later events show not). There’s also technology, sometimes working in tandem with the magic, as with the automata that seem like golems to my largely European trained eye; I don’t know if there’s a Korean or other Asian analogue. There’s tanks and guns but electricity is unevenly distributed – it’s a really interesting look at a world with unevenly distributed technology.… like our actual world. It’s also, as already implied, a deeply interesting take on the issue of colonialism and empire and collaboration and compromise and I really, really loved that aspect.

Brilliant. Hugely enjoyable.