Jo Walton’s Reading List: December 2021

December started off in Chicago with friends, then taking the train to DC for Worldcon, and then I came home just in time for Christmas, Omicron, and the new lockdown in Quebec. So I’m starting 2022 just as I started 2021, but vaccinated, boosted, and fortified by travel and seeing friends. December started off excellent and then went downhill fast, but the days are getting longer now, our curfew is 10 pm (not 8 pm the way it was this time last year), and I’m trying to be positive. I also read fourteen very varied books.

Take Up Thy Bed And Walk: Death, Disability, and Cure in Classic Fiction for Girls, Lois Keith (2001)
This is an excellent book that looks at portrayals of disability in What Katy Did, Jane Eyre, Heidi, The Secret Garden and other books of that vintage, considering the visions of disability and lessons about disability they offered, and the ways that is and isn’t helpful as models for people to take away. I’ve always found just the presence of disabled people, which is much more common in older books, extremely positive as representation, but Keith’s points about miraculous cures and suppression of personality are very interesting and relevant. This is a great book, comprehensive, thought provoking, mentions Charlotte M. Yonge, and is lively and fun to read. If you’re interested in portrayals of disability, or even if you just can’t believe anyone else remembers What Katy Did, well worth picking up.

Rosaline Palmer Takes the Cake, Alexis Hall (2021)
Romance novel set on the set of a thinly disguised Great British Bake Off, which is clever, funny, has a bi single mother heroine, and reads better if you have experience with romance novels so you can see where he is deftly playing with tropes. Lots of fun, and also full of genuine warmth and character growth. Hall knows what he’s doing.

The Umbrian Thursday Night Supper Club, Marlena de Blasi (2012)
I prefer de Blasi when she’s talking about her own life—this purports to be stories of their lives told to her by a group of women she has supper with once a week, but it can’t be. They might have told her these things but they’d never have agreed to have her publish them, so she must have changed them and it’s not good to worry about the blurring of the line between fact and fiction the way I was while reading this book. I still recommend de Blasi’s earlier food and Italy memoirs, but I didn’t enjoy this one much.

The Name of the Wind, Patrick Rothfuss (2007)
Re-read. Surely I’ve talked enough about this book that you don’t need me to say any more? Oh all right, it’s a beautifully written long fantasy novel with a very detailed world and an unusual framing device. On every re-read I like D less and appreciate the language more.

Cecily Neville, Mother of Richard III, John Ashdown-Hill (2018)
This is, sadly, a bad book. It’s clunkily written, repeats itself too much, and is a little too pleased with itself for doing actual historical research with documents. It also quotes too much in the original spelling—I’m all for including chunks of primary sources, but there’s no need to make me struggle through the archaic spelling. I didn’t learn much, except that other histories of the period assume some things he feels they have no solid grounds to assume, and it was a slog to get through. He doesn’t believe Richard murdered the princes, and he does believe in Eleanor Talbot. I admit it’s hard to get close to Cecily Neville, but I’d have appreciated more of a try.

The Party Crasher, Sophie Kinsella (2021)
This is a novel about letting go of your position as a child in order to grow up, but it’s unusual in that it’s not about a child or an adolescent but a grown woman in her twenties. It’s funny—all Kinsella is funny—and it’s a bit contrived, and it has a lovely reversal and a very well-played romance. But more and more I think Kinsella is writing interestingly about women’s lives between twenty and thirty in a way I haven’t come across before and like a lot.

Venice’s Secret Service: Organizing Intelligence In The Renaissance, Ioanna Iordanou (2019)
Fascinating and detailed book about cryptography, spies, and the way Venice did these things differently and far ahead of anyone else. There are a number of paragraphs in this book that I’d like to see expanded to trilogies, like the guy who kept going to and fro between Venice and the Ottoman Sultan’s mother with both sides believing he was spying for them, even when he got caught. There’s also a section about how anonymously denouncing their neighbours made Venetians with zero political power feel like part of a community and an in-group, which might also apply to Soviet citizens and makes positive sense of something that has always felt inexplicable. Lots of complex and interesting stuff here, and generally a good book.

Italian Folktales, Italo Calvino (1956)
This is a collection of folk and fairy tales collected by Calvino and others from all over Italy and retold by Calvino. They all have provenance, and it’s fascinating to see the varieties of stories popular in different places. It’s a huge volume; I’ve been reading this for months, and enjoying the process. These stories are different from Grimm and Perrault but also similar to them… There’s nothing here as strange as the Russian or Japanese folktale collections I’ve read, but it’s interesting seeing how much variation there is in this kind of story. There’s a surprising amount of fratricide here, for instance, and more boats than I’d expect.

Honeymoon For One, Portia MacIntosh (2019)
Romance novel in which a bride discovers her groom is cheating on her and goes off on her intended honeymoon alone. Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time. Not in any way surprising, but fun to read.

Lectures on Russian Literature, Vladimir Nabokov (1981)
This contains a fascinating essay on each of the great nineteenth-century Russian writers, followed by detailed discussion of their work. I skipped works I had not read, to avoid spoilers. It also contains a few general essays on Russian literature and translation, and literature generally, which were terrific. On the whole I enjoyed reading this, even when I disagreed with Nabokov, and occasionally he was incredibly insightful, as with Chekhov. I don’t understand why he hates Dostoevski so much though. I can see not liking his work, but the level of vitriol seemed unnecessary.

To Italy, With Love, Nicky Pellegrino (2021)
Pellegrino, whose romance novels set in Italy got me through the worst part of the pandemic, has written another one during her own New Zealand lockdown, and it’s delightful. A heartbroken young woman’s car breaks down in a small town in Italy so she stays there and everything works out for the best. Also, there’s an old Italian woman who runs a trattoria who has never found love, and then she does. Contains some walk-on characters from previous novels, living happily ever after, lots of Italy, and sunshine, and cooking, and it’s also good. Save this for a bad day; I did.

A Rage For Rock Gardening, Nicola Shulman (2011)
Short biography of Reginald Farrer, an Englishman at the very beginning of the twentieth century who changed not just the way people gardened but the way they wrote about gardens and plants. He had a short very strange life, and it was fascinating to read about. Recommended.

Home to Italy, Peter Pezzelli (2004)
Disappointing. This was billed as a story of a retired man going back to his home village in Italy, and it was, but… spoiler… he has a romance with a woman more than forty years younger than he is. If you’re an older man and you feel tempted to write this kind of story, just don’t. Write about an older man finding an older woman if you want, like Pellegrino does. Or there’s no need for happiness to mean romance at all. Gah. Nice descriptions of cycling and countryside, and that’s the most I can say for it.

The Light of Italy: The Life and Times of Federico da Montefeltro, Jane Stevenson (2022)
I read an advance copy of this thanks to Ada Palmer. This is a truly great book, one of the very best things I read in 2021, and one of the best biographies I’ve ever read. I want biographies like this of everyone: readable, well-documented, interested in the same questions I’m interested in—humanism, women, disability, patronage, art—and just all-round excellent. The first half is a biography of Federico da Montefeltro, the one-eyed duke from the Piero della Francesca double portrait, and the second half is a look at his legacy and the subsequent history of Urbino up to the present day. I think you could read this book if you knew nothing about the Italian Renaissance and still enjoy it a lot. It begins with talking about how we see Federico through his own self-fashioning, and how effective that myth he deliberately created has been. Wonderful book. Preorder it now.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two collections of Tor.com pieces, three poetry collections, a short story collection and fifteen novels, including the Hugo- and Nebula-winning Among Others. Her novel Lentwas published by Tor in May 2019, and her most recent novel, Or What You Will, was released in July 2020. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here irregularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal. She plans to live to be 99 and write a book every year.

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