Monday, December 25, 2017

What I'm Reading

Caroline Fraser, Prairie Fires

Long-time readers of the blog will remember that back in 2014 I taught a class on Laura Ingalls Wilder as a Major Author, after reading a number of critical books on her. I wish this book by Fraser had been written then. (Fraser had put out the two volume Library of America edition of Ingalls' books by then, and that's the edition I used for the class.)

I loved Anita Clair Fellman's Little House, Long Shadow, and I loved Ann Romines' Constructing the Little House. Wendy McClure's The Wilder Life was a delight.

Prairie Fires outpaces all of these. Starting her text with the Dakota War of 1862, and continuing on through the panic of 1898, the Dust Bowl, the Depression, and World War II, and finally Roger MacBride's 1972 faithless electoral vote, Fraser deftly reveals the complex historical, environmental, and political events that shaped the lives of the Ingalls and Wilder families. Through use of primary sources, she shows how Wilder and her daughter Lane worked to create a "truthy" version of Wilder's life in the Little House books, one that endorsed their political philosophy -- or rather, their desire for how the world should work.

This is an excellent, and very readable, book. If you're an Little House fan, you'll definitely want to read it. If you're interested in politics, you'll probably like it too. What was happening in the 1930s in America, while Wilder was writing her Little House books has much in common with what is happening in America today, and the xenophobia, racism, and contempt for the poor that Lane (and to some extent) Wilder expressed are the same xenophobia, racism, and contempt we hear today.

From Fraser's book:

[This hatred] was no mystery to Wilder. As she knew too well, people who are poor are ashamed. It's easier to blame the government than yourself. Wrestling with shame was one reason she wrote her books...but she also labored to lift that feeling out of her stories, and out of her past, setting aside her father's debts and her own grubby days working for the Masterses. She said she made the changes for the children, but she did it for herself too. (511).
An excellent book. 10/10 would read again.

MacKenzi Lee, A Gentleman's Guide to Vice and Virtue

This is a sort of a YA novel, and sort of an historical novel, and sort of a regency romance. Also sort of a fantasy novel. The writing is brisk, though about halfway through what has started out to be a romance novel set on a Grand Tour through Europe -- kind of what I signed up for, and was looking forward to -- turns into this kind of bizarre quest-for-a-ensourcelled heart story, which I never really did buy into.

Though I did enjoy the pirates.

It was like we had three novels patches together, I guess is what I'm saying, and though I did like two of them -- the pirate novel, and the traveling through Europe with my boyfriend and my nerd younger sister novel -- I think I would have liked them better as separate novels.

Still, nice writing, and the three main characters -- which is to say Henry Montague, point of view character and the son of a Lord who does not approve of his proclivities; Percy, the neighbor boy, who is the African/English nephew of Henry's neighbor; and Felicity, Henry's sister, who wants to be a doctor, and is instead being sent off to a finishing school -- are all fully realized and people we want to spend more time with. (Henry is annoying at first, but he grows on you.)

A lovely romp, in other words.

Jo Walton, Among Others, Farthing

Apparently I am re-reading all the works of Jo Walton once again. What am I to say? Walton is wonderful. Who can blame me?

Among Others is one of my favorites. It's the story of Mor Phelps, who in a battle with her mother has lost her twin sister and her mobility -- one leg was badly damaged, so that now she can walk only with a cane, and lives in constant pain. The battle itself is not described, nor exactly what they battled over. Mor tells another character that if her mother wanted to control the world, hinting that the stakes were that high.

This book is fantasy -- Mor sees fairies (though not the usual fairies) and can do magic (though not the usual magic). But it is mostly neither about magic nor about fairies, though it is about those things.

What it is mostly about is Mor's relationship with books, and her relationship with the people in her life who love books as much as she does.

If, like Mor, you also live a life in which books are essentially all you care about*, you may well love this book as much as I do.

Otherwise, you'll likely be confused by it, just a bit. ("What is this book about? All this girl does is read.")

There's a lot to like in the book besides all the bits about reading and books, though. It's really good on what it's like to live with chronic pain, for instance. And there's a lovely bit where Mor is dismayed at finding her new school / town has no wilderness around it.

As someone who grew up with wilderness all around me, and had lived most of my life with wilderness near at hand, and who now lives in an area with no wilderness within walking distance, yes, yes, yes. Not being able to easily get to a place where I can walk and climb through trees and rocks is just soul-numbing. It's the worst part of living in this town. (I can drive to a number of parks, but that is not the same.)

The school is also well done, as is the grandfather. And, as always, Walton's writing is brilliant.

Farthing I have already written about, here.

*Once someone interviewed me, and asked what I did for fun. "I read books," I said. "Also I write them. That's what I do. That's all I do."

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