Two more Object Lessons from Bloomsbury Academic
I know, I’m a bit obsessed with this series. But they keep popping up on NetGalley, and I keep being intrigued, and I keep being approved for them… and so I keep reading them…
Intriguingly, Mushroom is perhaps the most surprisingly metaphorical of these so far. It’s certainly not quite what I expected. There are short sections about specific mushrooms, related to (northern hemisphere) seasons. But the main sections are Mystery, Metaphor, Mycology, Medicine and Magic. All of these things I know relate to mushrooms and the history of their use by humans; there was a bit more emphasis on the metaphor aspect overall than I had anticipated. Which was certainly interesting, just not what I imagined!
Mushrooms are eaten for sustenance, of course, but they have also been used for medical and spiritual and magical purposes. Rich explores all of these, and – as most of these books do – also situates the discussion very personally.
Not quite what I expected, but not something I regret reading.
This was another excellent addition to this series. With chapters headed Clock, Fire, Siren, Security, Siren, “Failure, False, Fatigue”, and Future, Bennett takes us on a rollicking ride through alarms. There’s history and technology, sure. But there’s also art and culture, and the ways in which alarms are not neutral objects or sounds but can mean different things – particularly, she stresses, in America, where police sirens can mean different things depending on your skin colour (and I suspect the same thing may be true in Australia, at least to some extent). The idea of alarms as a prosthetic is profound – supplementing or replacing our own vigilance; but of course, now smart watches etc are encouraging us to be MORE vigilant (‘closing the ring’). Also, feeding into the capitalist world (my intention to never have one was significantly reinforced by reading this.)
Also, starting a book about alarms with Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, comparing the watchman, Clytemnestra’s alarm system, and Cassandra as alarm? INSPIRED.
Loved it. One of my favourites to date.
Never Afters, by Kirstyn McDermott
I don’t tend to read the works of Kirstyn McDermott. Even though she’s a friend. And not for the usual reasons that friends give, either; instead, it’s because she is too good. Kirstyn tends to write horror, and I tend to find her work just too distressing.
We’ve also had fruitful and fascinating conversations about the nature of horror as a genre, so I’m not going to say that this novella series, the Never Afters series, isn’t horror. Perhaps they’re gothic and gothic is the overarching category and horror fits in that, as I believe Kirstyn would argue, and perhaps other people would formulate it differently; I don’t know. All I know is that these fairy tale continuations, while not exactly the stuff of Disney-fied dreams, also aren’t quite the stuff to bring me nightmares. So that’s nice.
#1: Burnt Sugar. Now adults, childhood long behind, Gretel is a baker and Hansel is drunk more often than not. So far, so not exceptional. But Gretel brought back more than memories from the gingerbread house…. I appreciated that the siblings’ past trauma was dealt with sympathetically without making them only victims (they’ve managed to build a life around it). I know I said these novellas aren’t the stuff of nightmares; maybe what I should have said is that it’s not more nightmarish than the original stories. Because the truth is that this is a horrific story, in the ‘being controlled is terrifying’ way. Very clever.
#2: The New Wife. I don’t think of Bluebeard’s story as being in the same category as Hansel and Gretel – perhaps my fairytale omnibuses (omnibi??) left it out, or I skipped over it in an early aversion to horror? Who knows! But this may be my favourite of the Never Afters. Unlike Burnt Sugar, this story begins within (what I remember of) the original: the new wife unlocking the room that she was never supposed to enter… and goes from there in a rather different direction, involving ghosts, and what I understand is a classic gothic trope – the terrifying house.
#3: After Midnight. How do you do a new take on Cinderella?? Add a few decades, make the prince-now-king as feckless as such types often are, and the now-queen mother to only daughters – and also hardened by her experiences (or maybe she was always so?). Make the story a diary, complete with crossed out sections. Make veiled suggestions about what other things might be happening. Maybe this is my favourite, actually.
#4: Braid. I’d read this one previously – I don’t remember where – but I do remember a conversation about how hair, out of its appropriate place, is surprisingly distressing. Because Zel’s hair is as surprising and unexpected as it was back when she lived in the tower. Like Burnt Sugar and After Midnight, this is set many decades after the time of the fairytale, and deals with what it’s like to live with the consequences of those seemingly romantic and dramatic events of youth. Zel’s life has been complicated, mostly in mundane but nonetheless real and emotional ways – good and bad, love and loss. You just keep living…
#5: By the Moon’s Good Grace. In some ways the least unexpected of the stories. Like The New Wife, it picks up in the middle of the classic story; this has Little Red learning important truths about who her family is, who she is, and the consequences of that.
#6: Winterbloom. Somehow I know the Beauty and the Beast story least well, since I had completely forgotten that the whole saga starts with the father picking a rose without permission. This final novella is another set some years after the fairytale. The Beast is a composer and musician, Beauty is intrigued by roses and creating hybrids; their marriage is generally fine but shows some cracks. And then they have a visitor, aaaand… well. That’s rarely without consequence. Maybe this is my favourite instead?
Alone, excellent; as a set, they show how old stories continue to have resonance, can be used to explore modern and perennial themes.
The books can be bought from Brain Jar Press.
OK: by Michelle McSweeney
I read this courtesy of NetGalley. It’s out on January 12.
Another roaring success from the Object Lessons series. I had NO idea that OK had such a history. I DID know that you could use a tiny little object to illuminate significant moments in history, which is exactly what McSweeney does here: the connection between communication and technology, and the fate of OK in that – from the Penny Press in the 1830s in the US, to the telegraph and telephone and US cultural imperialism via TV and finally BBSs and social media… it’s all here.
I was also introduced to the term ‘phatic language’ and I love it. Phatic language is “language that is socially rich, but informationally empty”. All those markers that signal we’re listening and we care (in theory), including OK. I love that there’s a term for it, and I love that it has a real and important place in communication. I also love that the DARPA dudes thought email would be more like telegrams (terse, all info and no pleasantries) rather than a conversation, and HAHA sorry guys. Also apparently answering the telephone with “Hello?” was initially considered incredibly bad manners? This is a magnificent example of changing language and social expectations.
Meanwhile there’s also the fact that all those email suggestions that gmail throws at you were learned from “the Enron Corpus” – tens of thousands of emails from 2001 – is creepy and makes me even more determined not to use them.
For lovers of language and communication technology and micro history.
Despatches from the Frontiers of the Female Mind – anthology
I didn’t know this book existed until this year. It was published in 1985.
The list of contributors is just… I mean:
Joanna Russ (the only reprint)
Raccoona Sheldon! …
and that’s just the names that I immediately recognised.
It’s nearly 40 years old, so some of the stories have aged, I guess? But honestly the general issues in discussion still feel pretty real. Zoline’s “Instructions for Exiting this Building in Case of Fire” – children kidnapped and swapped to stop a nuclear apocalypse – still feels like a chillingly appropriate concept. Josephine Saxton’s view of advertising is hideous and, again, not as laughably far-fetched as I might like (it is ridiculous, but also… ads…). Beverley Ireland’s “Long Shift” is remarkable for its focus on a single woman, just doing her job; I wouldn’t have been surprised to see this published today. Pearlie McNeill is (was?) Australian, and I’ve never heard of her! Apparently this was her only piece of fiction? – SF, anyway. And this is where Raccoona Sheldon’s “Morality Meat” was first published, which is… a moment.
There are very few poor stories here. This is an amazing anthology.
After the Dragons – Cynthia Zhang
SOMEONE gave me a voucher to buy books for my birthday, and I was stumped. I love a voucher but then I get all – I must buy The Right Thing! I don’t want to waste it! So what books to buy?? And then I remembered that (at that stage) the Ursula K Le Guin Prize shortlist had just been announced, so there was an answer to that question: I bought a bunch from that list. And After the Dragons is one of them.
In the cover quote, Mary Robinette Kowal describes this book as having “quiet intimacy”, and that’s so right. It’s not about epic events (like She Who Became the Sun); it’s about the everyday joys and tragedies, in a world with lots of problems.
It’s set in a kind of tomorrow – it’s not far future – but in a world sideways to ours, because there are dragons. Not epic mythological dragons for slaying – it’s unclear whether those were ever real even here – but small, say pet-size. Indeed sometimes they are kept as pets… and as with kittens and puppies, sometimes they get dumped by their owners. And sometimes they just live as wild animals, and that means having to adjust to living in urban areas and with humans. Which doesn’t always go well. I was thinking about Anne McCaffrey’s Pern – still probably the fictional dragons my mind goes to first – and these are more the fire-lizards of Dragonsdawn rather than the later, genetically altered dragons.
For all that the dragons are there, this world is very much ours. There’s climate issues, there’s political tension, there’s racism; poverty and illness and family trouble on the personal level. The story is told from the perspectives of Beijing resident Kai – Xiang Kaifie – an artist, carer for dragons, and ill; and Eli, Elijah Ahmed, biracial American student visiting the hometown of his deceased grandmother, who gets drawn into Kai’s world of rescuing street dragons.
As I said, this is not epic. It’s low stakes on a global scale, although high stakes on a personal one: health and love and relationships and what the future holds are all immensely important to the people involved. It hints at troubling systemic issues but always focuses on the people at its heart. If you need a relief from world-shattering events this is a good choice, although I’m not promising that it’s all sunshine and light (it’s not). But it is a delight, and it is definitely worth your time.
Can’t wait to read more from Cynthia Zhang.
She Who Became the Sun
Whaaaaaat a book.
And yes, I am incredibly late to this party, since Parker-Chan was nominated for the Best Novel Hugo this year (losing to A Desolation Called Peace, by Arkady Martine, a massive favourite of mine so I’m glad I didn’t have to choose…).
This novel is just brilliant. One thing I will say is that it was a bit different from what I expected – which is entirely about me, not about the book. Because of the Hugo nomination, and my genre-leaning friends, I was expecting this to be a book with greater, or more obvious, fantastical elements. Nothing about the book itself made me think that! Parker-Chan’s bio says she was inspired by “epic East Asian historical TV dramas”, and my knowledge of such is below limited (although I am an Australian kid of the 80s and 90s, so does the original Monkey count?).
ANYWAY. It’s 1345, China is ruled by the Mongols – who think the ethnic Chinese are all barbarians, and vice versa. There’s famine in the south; two children in a family are told their destiny: he is bound for greatness, she is bound for nothing. But then he dies, which means his destiny is going wanting… so she decides to become him…
Epicness ensues as Zhu gets caught up in events far beyond what she imagined as a child. First as a monk, then as a warrior and a leader; always worried that heaven might catch on to the fact that the destiny she is grasping was not, actually, intended for her at all. She teeters on the precipice of failure and discovery – not sure which is worse – and sometimes through luck, more often through her intelligence and grit and sheer bloody-mindedness, she ploughs on through…
I believe this is a duology, and honestly the next one cannot come fast enough (which is rich, given how late I am to the party). The pacing was excellent, the stakes were high, Zhu is mighty and charismatic. The supporting cast are varied and intriguing – Parker-Chan writes a significant portion of the story from the other side, as it were: what’s going on in the Mongol camp, particularly from the perspective of a Chinese captive-risen-to-general, which gives the entire novel even more drama and intensity, emotion and high stakes.
What a book.
The Employees: A workplace novel of the 22nd century
When the Ursula K Le Guin Prize shortlist was announced, I was intrigued. I hadn’t heard of most of the titles, and I happened to have a book voucher from someone for my birthday, so I promptly went ahead and bought a number of the books.
This is the first one I’ve read. And it’s amazing. And it was also shortlisted for the Booker Prize??
It’s 136 pages in length. Not all of those pages are filled, because the bulk of the book is made up of employee statements… and as anyone who’s ever looked at employee feedback will be unsurprised to learn, some people have written a couple of pages and a few have written just one sentence. And that’s it – that’s what you learn of this 22nd century workplace. It’s almost entirely from employee feedback.
It’s brilliant. There are devastating gaps, and hints at terrible and wonderful things. There are touching moments of humanity and grim reflections on work and the workplace. Have you seen Severance? It’s not exactly like that but if you put them together you are forced to start thinking more about corporate workplaces than perhaps the managers would like us to.
The workplace is the Six-Thousand Ship, and the employees are its crew. Where are they? Not quite sure; that is, it’s around a planet called New Discovery, and it’s not near Earth, but other than that – no details. Some of the crew are human, while others are humanoid: some who were born, others who were made. There’s sometimes tension between the two groups, and sometimes camaraderie. Most of their work is what you’d expect on a spaceship, but some of it isn’t. Some of the complaints are also what you’d expect – around isolation, for instance – but some of the comments centre around objects that are never fully explained, from New Discovery itself. It’s deeply familiar, because some Ravn suggests aspects of work won’t change no matter the situation, and simultaneously quite alien.
It’s very, very, clever; absorbing, wrenching, sometimes disturbing, and I loved it.
Death metal, by T Coles
I read this courtesy of NetGalley and the publisher. It’s out now.
Death metal is very much not my scene, but music documentaries are; Coles references the documentary series Metal Evolution from some years ago, which I adored. As a musical history of the last four decades, I found this really quite fascinating. Although it must be noted that reading the names of some of the albums and songs, as well as a description of what they’re singing about, wasn’t always pleasant. So if you’re really not in the zone for some lightly gross description, avoid this!
Surprising things include the fact that I actually recognised some names of bands! More surprising though is that the second chapter begins with a mention of Hildegard von Bingen, and the fact that in the morality play attributed to her from 1151, the instructions are for the Devil to be played with a harsh voice. Coles draws a comparison here to the ‘death growl’ that helps make death metal what it is. So that was quite a moment.
The book follows a straightforward historical line from the beginnings of death metal and its early influences in the 1980s, through to when they are finishing the book in late 2021. This means that some of what is being discussed is coming from that a period when stuff that’s regarded today as on nose was still accepted by most of the scene. The main issue here is the misogyny of some of the lyrics, and I was very relieved that in the final chapter Coles does reflect on how problematic much of that early stuff is, and how at least some modern bands are actively pushing back.
Does this make me want to listen to death metal? Nope. Does it make me appreciate it more as a musical genre? On an abstract level, yes. It’s good that books like this exist.
Spoiled: The Myth of Milk as Superfood
I read this via the publisher and NetGalley. It’s out in April 2023.
This is an angry book.
I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, or that the anger is unjustified. Just that Mendelson doesn’t make much effort to hide the fact that a lot about Big Dairy in America makes her angry, and that the appalling lack of science around the claims for milk make her angry, and that the fact drinking milk is pushed as some mighty panacea when actually the ability to digest cow’s milk as an adult human is largely restricted to humans descended from north-west Europeans… that makes her angry, too.
Some of the most crucial sentences for understanding the point of the book comes early on: “… the founders of modern Western medicine had no way of understanding the genetic fluke that allowed them… to digest lactose from babyhood to old age… That lack turned the one form of milk that is most fragile, perishable, difficult to produce on a commercial scale, and economically pitfall-strewn into a supposed daily necessity for children and, to a lesser extent, adults.”
The section I most enjoyed for itself was the first part, where Mendelson looks at the long history of dairying, and in particular points out that drinking “fresh” milk (which is a whole other discussion of terminology, given what happens to milk in most Western countries today) wasn’t something early herders did. Instead, they were using fermented milk – naturally fermented, from being left out in the heat. She goes through the science of what’s actually happening in this fermentation, discussing why the bacteria in the milk doing all of this doesn’t poison human consumers of such milk. There’s also a really interesting discussion about the archaeology and other evidence for dairying of various forms in numerous locations.
Science is a fairly big part of the book, which I also enjoyed. There’s a lot about what’s in milk of various types, and why, as well as how that’s connected to the digestive system of the various animals that humans choose to milk. Plus the discussion about how limited the ability to actually properly digest full-lactose drinking-milk is, among the adult human population. If you can digest milk as an adult, it’s you that’s the genetic mutation, not everyone else. Doesn’t that make all the soy milk etc-haters look like numpties.
The angry-making bit really starts when the discussion turns to the 18th century in Europe, and the way that ‘drinking fresh milk’ suddenly became imperative for children, in particular, and the idea that if children were denied all the milk they could possibly consume then somehow society was failing them. All of which is nonsense since… see above. And then, of course, it gets into how the industry makes claims, and medical types get on board, and honestly it just makes me really sad and horrified to see how outlandish claims based on ‘science’ (sometimes) that has now been superseded, or sometimes just based on a desire to make money, is still having a massive impact on how we think and act today.
Also? this insistence on drinking-milk all came as a) more people were living in towns and b) before good refrigeration and c) before adequate food-safety measures like pasteurisation (which gets a whole section here, because of the raw food movement) were in place. All of which meant a bunch of kids, in particular, actually got sick and many of them died because of the milk they were told they needed to consume in order to be healthy.
One of the reasons for the angry nature of the book is its focus on the modern American dairy industry. I’m not going to claim that the Australian industry is immensely better, because I don’t know all that much about it, but I do know that we do things a bit differently. And then there’s the way in which drinking-milk is still being pushed as necessary… to populations that are, overwhelmingly, unable to digest full-lactose milk as adults. I think that’s just appalling.
Don’t read this as a fun history or science of milk. Do read it if you’re interested in how drinking-milk got to be the thing it is today – which is genuinely fascinating, as well as infuriating. There’s discussion of Kellogg’s, and milk-drinking cults, and the furore around pasteurisation and homogenisation, and the raw milk fad as well…
Sewer, by Jessica Leigh Hester
I read this via NetGalley. It’s out in November 2022.
OK, first thing to note is that you probably want a relatively strong stomach to read all of this… and you definitely don’t want to read it while eating. While it’s not revolting, there are some descriptions of sewers and fatbergs that are not the most pleasant of reading experiences.
Secondly, stop flushing wipes. No, seriously. Even the ones that say they’re flushable. Stop flushing them. They’re not really flushable. When you put something down the toilet it doesn’t ACTUALLY, magically, disappear. It still needs to go somewhere. And wipes? Oh, they do not disintegrate and become harmless like you might imagine. Stop. Flushing. Wipes.
This book is really remarkable. As with the best of the Object Lesson books, it’s personal and it’s deeply researched and it’s fascinating. Hester is convincing in her argument that sewers are vital to understand because they help us understand our past, as well as consider our future. She is also adamant that investing in sewer infrastructure is something that has been lacking (and I’m completely terrified and appalled by some of the stories about that) and is vitally important for our future. No one wants a return to typhoid and cholera in places like London. Which also means that those places without good, sturdy, reliable sewers – ones that DON’T JUST EJECT WASTE INTO THE OPEN WATER – absolutely need financial assistance in getting that done. If you don’t think that’s a priority… you’re wrong. Simple as that.
Highly recommended for the civil engineer in your life, or the person who’s always asking ‘why is it like that?”, or the person with the more-scatalogical-than-necessary sense of humour.
Also, STOP FLUSHING WIPES.