Reading Not-Wednesday

Jun. 24th, 2017 04:37 pm
brigdh: (Default)
[personal profile] brigdh
What did you just finish?
Ugly Prey: An Innocent Woman and the Death Sentence that Scandalized Jazz Age Chicago by Emilie Le Beau Lucchesi. A nonfiction book about Sabella Nitti, a woman who was found guilty of murdering her husband in 1923 Chicago – making her the first woman to be given a death sentence by an American court. (Note: not really. Plenty of women had hung or burned or otherwise received capital punishment before Nitti, but a lack of historical awareness meant that the lawyers, judges, and general public at the time reacted as though this was a new development, and chose to be proud of it or appalled by it as their personal politics dictated.) She is probably best-remembered these days as the inspiration for the Hungarian-speaking woman in the musical Chicago; here she is protesting her innocence during the Cell Block Tango.

Nitti was an Italian immigrant, illiterate, a farm wife, ugly (at least according to the reporters covering the case), and spoke no English or mainstream Italian, but only a fairly rare dialect called Barese. In addition, she was saddled with a defense lawyer who seemed to be actively losing the ability to maintain a train of thought – his behavior during the trial was remarkably unhelpful to her cause, and he would later spend years in a mental asylum. These factors almost guaranteed she would receive a guilty verdict despite the fact that it was never even clear if her husband was actually dead (it seems likelier he just decided to abandon the family), much less that she was the one who killed him. The local sheriff and one of Nitti's own sons seem to have been the prime movers in pinning the crime on her, despite the lack of evidence.

The depiction of the prejudices and passions of 1920s Chicago was where the book really shone. Women had newly gained the vote, and many saw the potential death sentence of a woman as connected to that – with power comes responsibility. Others argued that women were inherently deserving of mercy: "She is a mother and a mother has never been hanged in the history of this country. I do not believe the honorable court here will permit a mother to hang.” And then, of course, there was the issue of looks, of proper decorum – the pretty, fashionable yet obviously guilty women judged innocent by their all-male juries, and Nitti condemned to hang.

The first 2/3rds or so of the book, when Lucchesi is guiding the reader through Nitti's life before her husband's disappearance and the subsequent trial, are pretty great. Unfortunately the last third loses the thread. Lucchesi detours into describing the backstories of various prisoners Nitti would have met or other contemporary court cases in Chicago; none of it seems to have much to do with Nitti, who disappears from the page for chapters at a time. Some of these would become the inspiration for other characters in Chicago, but since Lucchesi won't mention the musical until the epilogue, the reader is left to make the connection on their own or be confused. (Overall I found the book's lack of direct acknowledgement of Chicago odd – it's so obviously hanging there, waiting for the reader to notice it, and yet Lucchesi treats it like a devil who will bring bad luck if its name is invoked. Not to mention the missed marketing opportunity.) Others, like the two chapters spent on the Leopold and Loeb case, just seem to have interested Lucchesi and were vaguely connected, so she threw them in as a afterthought.

It's a good example of historical crime writing, even if it needed a better structural editor.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.


Golden Hill by Francis Spufford. THIS BOOK IS SO GOOD EVERYONE READ IT IMMEDIATELY. A novel set in 1746 New York City, the book opens with the arrival in town of Richard Smith, fresh from London and bearing a bill for a thousand pounds. All of the novel's action is compacted within the next 60 days, as various New Yorkers wait to receive word from England proving Smith is who he says he is and if he really is owed such a fabulous sum; in the meantime they (and the reader) are left to figure out the mysterious Smith: a conman who should be thrown in the city's freezing jail? a wealthy aristocrat who your daughters should be encouraged to woo? a French spy, come to exploit the division between the city's new-born political parties? an actor, a Catholic, a gay man, a libertine, or possibly even a Turkish magician? Through it all Smith delights in giving no answers, reveling in the New World as a place to remake himself. I generally am suspicious of books that deliberately hide information from the reader, but it's done so well here and leads to such a delightful revelation that I think it was the perfect choice.

Spufford's style is a moderate pastiche of 18th century novels; here are the opening lines as an example:
The brig Henrietta having made Sandy Hook a little before the dinner hour—and having passed the Narrows about three o’clock—and then crawling to and fro, in a series of tacks infinitesimal enough to rival the calculus, across the grey sheet of the harbour of New York—until it seemed to Mr. Smith, dancing from foot to foot upon deck, that the small mound of the city waiting there would hover ahead in the November gloom in perpetuity, never growing closer, to the smirk of Greek Zeno—and the day being advanced to dusk by the time Henrietta at last lay anchored off Tietjes Slip, with the veritable gables of the city’s veritable houses divided from him only by one hundred foot of water—and the dusk moreover being as cold and damp and dim as November can afford, as if all the world were a quarto of grey paper dampened by drizzle until in danger of crumbling imminently to pap:—all this being true, the master of the brig pressed upon him the virtue of sleeping this one further night aboard, and pursuing his shore business in the morning. (He meaning by the offer to signal his esteem, having found Mr. Smith a pleasant companion during the slow weeks of the crossing.) But Smith would not have it. Smith, bowing and smiling, desired nothing but to be rowed to the dock. Smith, indeed, when once he had his shoes flat on the cobbles, took off at such speed despite the gambolling of his land-legs that he far out-paced the sailor dispatched to carry his trunk—and must double back for it, and seizing it hoist it instanter on his own shoulder—and gallop on, skidding over fish-guts and turnip leaves and cats’ entrails, and the other effluvium of the port—asking for direction here, asking again there—so that he appeared most nearly as a type of smiling whirlwind when he shouldered open the door—just as it was about to be bolted for the evening—of the counting-house of the firm of Lovell & Company, on Golden Hill Street, and laid down his burden while the prentices were lighting the lamps, and the clock on the wall showed one minute to five, and demanded, very civilly, speech that moment with Mr. Lovell himself.

However, it's 18th century language hiding a 21st century attitude; this is a novel deeply aware of gender and racial divisions, for all that they're mostly hidden behind humor and a page-turning sense of suspense. It's a New York City shaped and haunted by the ghosts of the slave revolt of 1741, and its shadow lies over every page, thought it's only ever directly addressed in one on-page conversation (though goddamn, it's a conversation with resonance). Smith meets and begins to court Tabitha Lovell, who is described as a "shrew" by her family and the rest of this small-town New York. Her portrayal though, is much more complex than that stereotype, and it's never quite clear how much she is an intelligent woman brutally confined by social strictures or how much she suffers from an unnamed mental illness.

And yet it's fun book, an exciting book! There are glorious set-pieces here: Smith racing over the rooftops of winter New York, outpacing a mob howling for his blood; a duel fought outside the walls of the city that turns in a split second from humor to horror; a play acted on the closest thing New York has to a stage; a card game with too much money invested. The writing is alternatively beautiful and hilarious, and I'm just completely in love with all of it.

I really can't recommend this book enough. I came into it not expecting much, but it turned out to be exactly what I wanted.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.


Mount TBR update: No change: 18


What are you currently reading?
The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley. A new book by the author of The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, a book which approximately one million people have recommended to me and yet I still haven't gotten around to reading. But, uh... I've got this one! :D

Things what are currently going on

Jun. 23rd, 2017 03:29 pm
lynndyre: Meracle (Meracle grin)
[personal profile] lynndyre
So many! Some links in case they catch your eye:

Ardor in August - LOTR slash exchange! I love this one. Signups open til the 25th.

Star Trek Friendship Fest - does what it says on the tin! Trek based gen. Signups open til the 25th, sadly nobody yet asking for Spock & McCoy.

Rarepair, for any and all rare ships, signups open til the 28th.

Exchange at Fic Corner - for children's book canons. Signups open til the 28th.

AU Exchange - a new AU scenario-matching exchange, multifandom. Nominations open til July 1.

Press Start - for game canons. Nominations open until July 1


And without any deadline except 'finish before next year'-
Hurt/Comfort Bingo! For the pleasant torturing and subsequent cuddling of favourite characters. <3


*quietly melts in the heat*

Night on Rec Mountain

Jun. 22nd, 2017 05:09 pm
lynndyre: Porthos holding Athos (hug!)
[personal profile] lynndyre
I have a backlog of things I keep meaning to post about, but first- A rec!!

The Fever of the World (8487 words) by Anonymous
Chapters: 1/1
Fandom: Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003), Master and Commander - All Media Types
Rating: General Audiences
Warnings: No Archive Warnings Apply
Relationships: Jack Aubrey & Stephen Maturin
Characters: Jack Aubrey, Stephen Maturin
Additional Tags: Hurt/Comfort, Prison, Delirium, Worry, Fever
Summary:

And everywhere the fire, lighting sky and sea, dappling across the small bobbing faces lifted to the heavens.

He had seen Stephen swimming, hadn't he. He had known Stephen would remember how to float, the way Jack had taught him. Feeling sure, he had floundered past, to get about saving as many as he could. After all, he had seen Stephen swimming.

Hadn't he?



It is so good! Jack and Stephen are shipwrecked, and jailed to await prisoner trading-- Perfect h/c, perfect Jack and Stephen banter, with period medicine and emotional vulnerability and rude details, and the tone and characterisation both are so very spot on. If you love these guys, give this a read. ♥

Oh, hey, one of these.

Jun. 17th, 2017 10:39 pm
lady_ganesh: A Clue card featuring Miss Scarlett. (Default)
[personal profile] lady_ganesh
I'm already overcommitted so why not?

My hc_bingo card )

Midyear Writing News!

Jun. 15th, 2017 11:32 pm
[syndicated profile] fozmeadows_feed

Posted by fozmeadows

We appear to be halfway through 2017 already, which is surely some sort of cosmic accounting error. To compensate, here is some writing news.

I’m thrilled to have won the 2017 Ditmar Award for Best Fan Writer in my third year of nomination. I didn’t write as much last year as I would’ve liked, all things considered, but I was proud of what I did produce, and especially now that I’m back in Australia, I’m honoured to have something like this to show for it.

As of April this year, I’m now a semi-regular contributor to the awesome Geek Girl Riot podcast. My segment is called Foz Rants, which is fairly self-explanatory, and covers whatever I feel like yelling about at the time. The whole podcast is pretty spectacular, so give it a look!

I have a new essay out in The Book Smugglers’ Quarterly Almanac: Volume 4. It’s on slipfic and the definition of genre, and contains some thinky-thoughts I’ve been trying to pin down for a while.

Finally, I’m extremely excited to have three short stories in Issue 3 of The Fantastist Magazine – ‘Letters Sweet as Honey,’ ‘Mnemosyne’ and ‘The Song of Savi’. Though different in terms of style and genre, they’re loosely thematically linked, and I’m looking forward to seeing how they’re received both individually and as a sort of triptych.

And with that, back to the studio!


Reading Wednesday

Jun. 14th, 2017 12:59 pm
brigdh: (Default)
[personal profile] brigdh
What did you just finish?
A Question of Order: India, Turkey, and the Return of Strongmen by Basharat Peer. A really fascinating account of the recent history of these two countries and how their politics have lately turned to authoritarianism and aggressive nationalism. This is self-evidently relevant to those of us under Trump or May as well; I've been making comparisons between Modi and Trump ever since the latter became a political candidate, and Peer clearly agrees with me.

The book is divided into two sections, the first on India and its current Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, who was elected in 2014; the second on Turkey and its current president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who was elected Prime Minister in 2003 and then, when he could no longer extend his term there, switched to president in 2014, rewriting the laws to make that position more political, powerful, and active. Each chapter is a bit of a self-contained essay, with topics ranging from the broad (the history of the BJP, Modi's political party) to the individual (the suicide of a Dalit PhD student after being ignored and disadvantaged by his school). I'm more familiar with India's current political scene than with Turkey's, but even the stuff I already knew came with very recent updates or insightful analogies. Overall the chapters convey a well-researched, thoughtful, and thorough picture of each country's politics.

If world politics remotely interest you, I highly recommend this book – though to be honest, it is quite depressing. I put off reading it myself for months because I needed more lighthearted material, but I'm glad I finally got to it. I only wish I could have read this before the July 2016 coup in Turkey. Of course it wasn't out yet, and though given its so-recent occurrence Peer is only able to address the topic briefly in his afterword, but I feel like I now understand much more of the dynamics and players involved.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.


Urban Forests: A Natural History of Trees and People in the American Cityscape by Jill Jonnes. A nonfiction book that describes itself as "a passionate, wide-ranging, and fascinating natural history of the tree in American cities over the course of the past two centuries". I'm about to take issue with that blurb, but I did enjoy reading it.

My main complaint about this book is that it's not particularly focused on urban forests. Out of 21 chapters, one is about the canker than killed off the American Chestnut, four are on Dutch Elm Disease, one on the Emerald Ash Borer (a bug that attacks ash trees), and two on Asian Long-Horned Beetles (which kill several types of trees, but are particularly fond of maples). These are all interesting stories, and Elms and Ash and Maples do sometimes live in cities, but cities are very much not the focus of these sagas of disease and resistance. Another chapter is on the discovery of the Dawn Redwood, a "living fossil" from the Cretaceous, whose only connection to the idea of "urban forests" seems to be that the discoverers were paid by Harvard University, which is in Boston, which is a city. There are also chapters on the (surprisingly contentious!) history of Arbor Day, Thomas Jefferson's tree collection, and the founding of America's various great arboretums (tree museums) including the New York Botanical Garden, the Arnold Arboretum, and the Morton Arboretum. All of which doesn't leave a lot of room for my poor street trees. "Historical Tree Diseases of the US" would have been a much more accurate title, but I suppose someone along the way decided that wouldn't sell as well.

I feel a bit churlish complaining so much though, because in the end the book is a fun read. Despite my proposed serious-sounding title, Jonnes is very much writing in the vibe of Mary Roach or Bill Bryson: she tells interesting stories in a familiar, entertaining way, and if they're a bit random and hang together more by virtue of their "cool to know" quality than their deep thematic connection, that's okay. The main point is to have fun. For instance, a chapter on how DC got its cherry trees is quite disconnected from the rest of the book, but is nonetheless a great story. I was most interested in the last few chapters, which finally got into the topic of actual urban forests, because that was what had attracted me in the first place, but they all were surprisingly engaging. I also have to be very grateful to Jonnes for introducing me to the NYC Street Tree Map, which actually allows you to zoom down onto any block in the city, click on a tree, and find out facts about what species it is, how big it is, how many pounds of air pollution it removes each year, and so on. I've had a lot of fun identifying the trees outside of my apartment.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

Mount TBR update: 18, still.


What are you currently reading?
Ugly Prey: An Innocent Woman and the Death Sentence that Scandalized Jazz Age Chicago by Emilie Le Beau Lucchesi. Non-fiction about the first woman to receive the death sentence in Chicago, for murdering her husband – which, Lucchesi argues, she probably didn't do, but being an "ugly", illiterate, Italian immigrant disposed the jury against her. Really fascinating!

Fire Boy by Sami Shah

Jun. 14th, 2017 07:13 pm
fred_mouse: crystal mouse, looking straight out at the viewer (crystal)
[personal profile] fred_mouse posting in [community profile] sps
I picked this ebook up from one of the assorted bulk SF/Fantasy 'free ebook' pages, which I *think* took me through to a 'sign up for the author's newsletter to get a free book' site.

I was pleasantly surprised by this book - urban fantasy, set in Karachi, incorporating aspects of Islam and the local supernatural traditions as well as some of the political history of Pakistan. The world building is delightful. The level of detail is possibly obsessive, but useful to me as a foreign reader from a different religious tradition, and gave a really good sense of place. I found the protagonist annoying, but it is a coming of age story for a young man who is the only son of a somewhat wealthy family - it is understandable that he starts as somewhat of a brat. Some of the other characterisation was a bit weak, making it difficult to keep track of some of the secondary characters, and making the villains a little bit bland.

Main complaint is that it ends abruptly, after doing a lot of set up, but without a sense of having resolved anything.

It is listed as a duology, but book 2 is not out.

A lot of emo whining, idk

Jun. 13th, 2017 06:45 pm
wickedace: A small, purple, plush dragon (Default)
[personal profile] wickedace
There's a place, a headspace, I end up in sometimes, and have ended up in this evening. I'm going to write about it here, mostly to get the thoughts out of my head, and then I'm going to go and do something else - I think I will put dye on my hair, and then cook and eat dinner while it's on, and then wash it out, and that will probably fill up the evening.

So, this mood, headspace, thought cycle. I used to get it a lot when I was in my final year at uni, and having to think about what jobs to apply to, what to do with myself after graduation, and all that. These days, the trigger is usually thinking about writing on a day when writing is not going well - in particular, trying to think about character ideas.

When you're writing characters, everyone says, the important thing to know is what drives them, what they want out of life.

The problem is, this is a train of thought very much adjacent to the one that looks like "what do I want out of life?". And I (still!) don't know the answer to that.

The world tells me, "You can do anything! You can be whatever you want to be! Follow your passion! Follow your dreams!" But the world is assuming I have a thing I know I want to do/be, and there's some external circumstance holding me back from it.

I don't think I have a "passion". I mean, a lot of people probably don't. I don't think I have a "drive". Or a "dream", in the cheesy motivational meme sense. I have some things I enjoy doing (except when they send me down this spiral). I have some people I like spending time with. I have a job I enjoy most of the time. I have financial and housing security. I have a family I love. I have... a daily grind that's kind of okay? That's what this looks like.

When I think about this, it feels like pressure, wrapping around the sides of my brain and squeezing. I want to curl up and bury my face in a pillow and scrunch up my eyes and moan piteously. I want to hide from everything (but I want someone to turn up and tell me it's all okay?). I don't like it, and it upsets me.

I would like to be able to brainstorm character ideas without getting into this mess...

Some things I like:
(if I write them down here, it will remind me that there are some)
  • Writing, when I manage to do some, and not spiral like this
  • Photography, when there's something pretty to photograph
  • Reading
  • Watching films (I am slowly catching up with a bunch of old ones I've never seen)
  • Spending time with particular people
  • Cooking and eating tasty/fancy food
  • Going to comedy nights
What I am going to do now:
  • Have a snack and a drink of water
  • Put dye-safe clothes on
  • Put dye on my hair (I think the pillarbox red)
  • Cook dinner (perhaps chicken and new pots with white wine sauce?)
  • Eat dinner
  • Finish rereading Maskerade
  • Wash dye off hair
  • Bed, probably

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Helen Bright

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