This Week, I Read… (2020 #24)

#92 – City of Dragons, by Robin Hobb

  • Read: 6/18/20 – 6/19/20
  • Mount TBR: 85/150
  • Bookwyrm Readathon Challenge: Read a book about dragons
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

Aahh, the dreaded filler book. This feels to me much the same way that Dragon Keeper did before I got to the majesty of Dragon Haven. Not a lot happens to move the plot forward–not nothing, but not a lot. A good chunk of this book was spent reintroducing neglected characters as brief POVS (Tintaglia, Malta, Selden) all of whom I’m glad to see back, but it’s just setting them up at the edge of the chess board so they can make their moves later–none of them really “do” much other than decide to move somewhere else, be forced by circumstance to move somewhere else, or in Selden’s case, are forcibly moved somewhere else against their will.

I’m sure it’s all going to be important, but it really doesn’t amount to much yet.

That systemic flaw aside, there is good stuff here about Kelsingra and how interesting it is, though the fact that I was interested in it meant I wished there had been more than we were given. I wanted to see the whole of this mysterious Elderling city that I’ve only glimpsed before, as characters visited it through the stone portal magic, or in memory, across the many books so far. Someday, when I have the time and energy to reread the whole series from the beginning, it’s going to mean a lot more to me when the tower window gets broken and I’m all like I KNOW WHERE YOU ARE RIGHT NOW IT’S SO COOL. (Still haven’t figured out the deal with the damn rooster crown, though. It keeps showing up but I haven’t put the pieces together yet. The final trilogy with Fitz and the Fool better finish that up.)

Overall, the series is a marvel of plotting and world-building, and that’s still true here as a piece of the whole, it’s just a short and relatively featureless piece that spends all its time setting up for the more interesting stuff that’s coming.

#93 – So You Want to Talk About Race, by Ijeoma Oluo

  • Read: 6/19/20 – 6/21/20
  • Bookwyrm Readathon Challenge: Listen to an audiobook + Read something outside your comfort zone
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

An excellent and organized primer on how to engage with race as a topic for those who don’t already know how–which is a lot of people.

Different people are going to get different things out of this book, and given its title and its black author, I did expect going in that it was going to be aimed squarely at white people. It’s not. Oluo takes time to acknowledge, quite often in fact, the ways that different groups of people of color can be biased again each other, which is a part of the conversation that I (being white) am not often privy to. The advice she gives about how to examine yourself for privilege and how to dismantle your learned biases apply to everyone; while white people might benefit most by taking this book seriously (and then doing what they can to change the culture of white supremacy,) anyone can benefit. There are many pieces of advice for people of color on how to handle interacting with racist people and microaggressions, their rights to stand up for themselves vs. the pressure to educate others, and plenty more that does not in any way apply to me, but I still found helpful to learn about.

Topics were divided by chapter, and some were more basic than others, but I value the goal of meeting everyone where they are. I did not need Oluo to teach me why I cannot ever-ever-ever use the n-word, I knew that; but others might not. I think the most illuminating chapter for me personally was on Asian-Americans as the model minority–this really isn’t talked about much in my sphere, and while I was aware of a few of the classic stereotypes of East Asians specifically, I did not know about many others, nor about the vast disparities in wealth, education, and opportunity that correlate closely with country of origin. While this topic wasn’t covered in depth (it’s not the point of the book) I’m concerned enough by my lack of knowledge that it’s something I want to investigate further.

And that’s really the point of this work, a starting point. If someone is new to educating themselves on anti-racism, this is an accessible entryway, a good first read. It would make a poor only read because it provides an introductory view on many topics but doesn’t cover anything in depth, except perhaps the personal struggles of the author herself as a black woman, as that’s a narrative thread carried throughout the book. What I’m taking away from this work is that, while I may know and already practice much of what Oluo wants to tell me, she’s done an excellent job pointing out where I can improve, and I need to educate myself further on those issues.

#94 – The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of Their Lost World, by Steve Brusatte

  • Read: 6/22/20 – 6/23/20
  • Mount TBR: 86/150
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

The book fell down for me on several fronts. DNF @ page 99, and once I outline my growing qualms with the presentation throughout the first chapters, I’ll share the quote that made me set the book down for good.

Issue #1: The author is quietly sexist in a way I’m sure many people wouldn’t notice, but I did. I read an article several years ago concerning the troubling tendency of Western journalism to infantilize women by referring to them only by their first names, while men in similar circumstances would be referred to by their last names. It’s not by any means universal; the current round of think pieces on the most recent J.K. Rowling debacle aren’t calling her “Joanne,” for example. But it does happen, and since becoming aware of it, I’ve seen it crop up in many places. In fact, a well-liked review on Goodreads of a book I recently read does it, referring to the female author repeatedly by her first name, despite being positive and respectful in most other ways. (Yes, the reviewer is male.)

In Dinosaurs, Brusatte name drops many, many colleagues, mentors, and well-regarded pillars of paleontology and geology. All of them are introduced by full names, but the men (with one exception) are thereafter referred to by last name, while the comparatively few women are referred to by first name only. The particular instance that brought this home to me was the “skilled geologist Jessica Whiteside,” whom Brusatte takes great pains to laud as brilliant, amazing, and so forth, to the point where it seemed he heaped praise on her in an effort to not sound sexist. But then she was “Jessica” for the rest of the section about her, while a man in the same position would have been “Whiteside,” like most of the other men referred to so far in this work. (The lone exception was person who entered the narrative as a teenager and was referred to by his first name presumably because of his youth, which carried over even after the tale was describing his adult work. There was another similar anecdote later in the book of a scientist who got started young but did not receive the same lack of respect re: naming conventions; I have no sure explanation for that, and I realize it weakens my argument slightly. If I had kept reading, maybe I would have found other women who were not treated in this manner, but that’s not good enough reason for me to keep reading, nor to stop me from calling this out.)

To some this might seem like extreme nitpicking, but it left a foul taste in my mouth.

Issue #2: This book can’t decide what it wants to be. There’s science in it, sure, like the title says–I have read things about the rise of the dinosaurs, and I’ve stopped long before I get to their fall, but I’m sure it happens. And what science there has been so far has been interesting. I had a dinosaur phase as a kid, I was obsessed, I memorized names and average sizes and diets and whatever other facts I could get my hands on. Eventually I grew out of it–at least in the sense that I moved on to other fascinations–but I’m not not interested in dinosaurs as an adult, and the early part of this book promised me a paradigm shift, because I’ve been out of touch with the facts about them for thirty years. Thirty years can do a lot to change a scientific field. I was intrigued.

So why am I spending so much time reading about the boys’ club of field researchers? Why is the author trying to hard to seem cool? Why do I care who you have beers with and what type of pub you’re in? Why is so much of these first 99 pages about what chill guys you all are? I suppose that little peeks of the behind-the-scenes of field research could be fun if used sparingly, or even just to make me appreciate what hard work it can be to make these discoveries, but the tone I got from this was that the author desperately wants to prove he’s not a nerd, despite, you know, being a paleontologist and writing a book about dinosaurs. I’m not here for this ego stroking, I wanted to read about the world blowing up and how the dinosaurs dealt with it, until they couldn’t anymore. (There has been some of that, lava and continents tearing and noxious gases. That’s been fun.)

Issue #3: The quote that killed my patience with this book completely. For context, we’ve reached the part of the tale when Pangea splits and the resulting cataclysm precipitates another extinction event, toppling the ecosystem of the late Triassic period and starting the Jurassic, when dinosaurs flourished while many of their previously strong competitors died out.

After stating that the mystery of why the dinosaurs thrived while other groups went extinct “quite literally has kept me up at night” and going on to spend a full paragraph asking hypothetical questions about what might have caused it, he drops this bomb:

Maybe dinosaurs were just lucky. Perhaps the normal rules of evolution are ripped up when such a sudden, devastating, global catastrophe happens.

No. Hard no. The author’s personal failure to know what it was about the dinosaurs that spurred their survival does not equal “maybe evolution is meaningless.” No one else knows the answer yet either, and maybe we never will, but an absence of evidence does not mean we chuck our understanding of a fundamental principle of biology–I’m only going to question the validity of evolutionary theory if someone can present me credible evidence that some other system is responsible for producing the hundreds of years of observations that currently support evolution. There is a reason, or reasons, the dinosaurs were successful when other creatures were not, even if we will never pinpoint what those reasons were.

If Brusatte is joking or being hyperbolic with this statement for effect, I think poorly of him for bringing “luck” into a book about science and expecting me not to narrow my eyes at it. If he’s being serious, then I can’t take this work seriously, end of story.

#95 – Secrets of a Summer Night, by Lisa Kleypas

  • Read: 6/23/20 – 6/24/20
  • Mount TBR: 87/150
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

Historicals have never been my go-to for romance, but as I’m still working through the many, many battered paperbacks I acquired several years ago at used book sales, attempting to change that fact, here I am with another middling review of a middling book.

Kleypas has fared better than some in my evaluation, but I’m still not enamored of her, and after four tries, I think she’s not my thing. Even among my general dislike for Regency England, this was just okay.

The problem is, as with many other similar novels, all the conflict is external. Sure, you might be persuaded into thinking that the love interests have internal conflicts about whether or not they should be together, but all their muddled thinking is strictly due to the rules of the society around them. Annabelle doesn’t like Simon because his personality and attitudes chafe against her delicate upper-crust sensibilities; Simon doesn’t even have an internal conflict, he just wants Annabelle however he can have her, and has no apparent problem switching from “mistress” to “wife” ambitions when the plot needs him too.

All this, to disguise the fact that once you set aside the classism and learned distaste of their relative positions in society, they’re actually perfect for each other; they have tons of fun when they forget they’re not supposed to.

And for some, I guess that’s the appeal of historical romances from this period (and any other that relies on strict class behavior keeping people apart,) but for me, it gets so tired, and this was a particularly tiring example.

But you’ll notice I still gave it three stars. So what did I like? Well, Simon is just fun, even if he’s not particularly deep. The writing style is smooth and palatable, without anything to keep me from being immersed in the story. And most importantly, this novel puts more emphasis than most on the importance of female friendship. Yes, the Wallflowers here band together with a husband-hunting scheme in mind, but their banter is hilarious, their personalities reasonably well-developed for being minor characters (though with plenty of room to grow in their own books later in the series) and they all do genuinely grow to care for each other, rather than using each other for their goal. I don’t plan on continuing the series because this subgenre continues not to be my cup of tea (outside of a very small pool of exceptional authors who could write phone books and I would still read them) but I do feel a twinge of sadness that I won’t be seeing the other three friends get their own happy endings, because I did enjoy them. Just not enough to keep wading through a genre I generally find mediocre at best.

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