Reviews: Black Futures, The Photographer of Mauthausen, and more

Half Life by Jillian Cantor. 1/5
I really wish people writing about music and musicians had actual musicians read their work before publishing it. Most orchestras don’t call the pianist the “principal piano,” and being the pianist for an orchestra does not mean playing non-stop piano concertos with said orchestra. Not every piece is a “song.” Not every musician has or needs perfect pitch, and having it doesn’t automatically make you a good musician.

Now that I have that off my chest: this novel fictionalizes the life of Marie Curie and, in parallel, imagines a life for her–as Marya–had she not gone to Paris to study when she did. The author is clearly trying to create numerous parallels between these two lives, including having Marie’s sister Helena marry Jacques Curie in the version where Marya stays in Poland. Because of this very tight connection between the parallel worlds, though, the story is restricted in imagination and originality. The storytelling is a bit heavy-handed: it’s obvious from the start that Marya’s husband will cheat on her with Leokadia; that Marya will return to him; that Marya and Pierre Curie will feel attracted to one another; that the real-life affair between Marie and Paul Langevin will be mirrored by Pierre and Jeanne Langevin; and so on. Ultimately, the novel is a bit of a slog with few rewards.

The Photographer of Mauthausen written by Salva Rubio; drawn by Pedro J. Colombo; colored by Aintzane Landa. 5/5
This is an outstanding graphic novel about the power of testimony and the forms that testimony can take. Crafted with detail and attention and compellingly written, this book is an important contribution to literature about resistance and organization in WWII concentration camps, as well as an illustration on the need for historical accuracy, evidence, and documentation. This should not only be very well-received among regular graphic novel readers, but also those interested in WWII, the history of photography and journalism, and current activism. There’s some swearing and of course images of the atrocities of Mauthausen, but I’d recommend this nonetheless for readers ages 12 and up. I’d love to see it taught in schools and chosen by book clubs for meaningful discussion.

The Ravine by Wendy Lower. 2/5
This memoir follows the work of the author in seeking out more information about a devastating photograph of the murder of Jews in Ukraine during the Second World War. The author’s explanations and descriptions of the war and its various entities is often simplistic, and while her writing about the power of photography and its use during the war and after is more engaging and informative, she remains at a distance in the narrative, even as she sifts fragments of human bone from a mass grave. The writing is often stilted and in the passive voice. I don’t know if this is to make the work seem more scholarly–it is non-fiction, but not scholarly at all–or because of her own lack of ease with the subject matter. Unfortunately, the book ends with tepid platitudes and is, as a whole, unsatisfying.

The Bookshop of Second Chances by Jackie Fraser. 1/5
In this fairy tale, when a middle-aged woman is left by her husband, she discovers that she has inherited a house and its valuable contents in Scotland from a distant family member. Off she goes, Cinderella to the ball! Once in the house, she makes friends in the town and begins a friendship with the local bookseller, who happens to be rich and handsome, albeit emotionally very, very screwed up. The heroine wins him over and makes him want to be a better person, although why, I don’t know–he’s emotionally abusive and violent at times. But it’s a fairy tale, so apparently that doesn’t matter. And he promises to be better. Then he gets into a fistfight with his brother, but the heroine helps t hem reconcile. Did I mention it’s a fairy tale? In the end, everyone is happy. There’s a token Sassy Black Friend and Devoted Lesbian Couple, in place apparently to make the story more diverse than it really is: it’s about white, financially comfortable people having mid-life crises and overlooking really serious issues in other people in order to convince themselves that they are still sexy, still desirable, still valuable in a society that values those attributes. It was all kind of sad to read.

Black Futures by Kimberly Drew; Jenna Wortham. 4/5
An excellent collection of writing and art by Black artists on topics ranging from reparations to BLM to food cultures to music. This will be especially valuable for educational use and reading groups.

The Project by Courtney Summers. 2/5
A thriller about cults and belonging, in which the protagonist is an easily-swayed and not terribly smart young woman seeking her sister. A lot of plot elements don’t make a lot of sense, and the denouement was predictable. A round of developmental editing would have helped round out the characters more and made the author consider certain plot choices that seem arbitrary or irrelevant.

In the Quick by Kate Hope Day. 1/5
In a dystopian world where children are trained to become astronauts in their teens, protagonist June is a precocious, self-centered, thoughtless child who grows into a hubristic, self-centered, thoughtless, and reckless adult. Driven to show that she is always, always right and better, June rejects the critical necessity of teamwork in engineering in order to follow her own agenda, leading to the ends of others’ careers and health. In addition to having one of the least sympathetic narrators I’ve ever read, this book offers a view of engineering and science that is completely antithetical to the way those things should work. Engineers are unethical, withholding vital information; they keep deadly secrets in space; they behave like children. Perhaps this is intended as a cautionary tale about what happens when we let the cult of genius aggrandize itself unchecked, but I think the author genuinely thinks this is all heroic or realistic or something. Want good books about women in space? Go read The Calculating Stars and its sequels instead.

Riddle Field by Derek Thomas Dew. 1/5
While I appreciate that this collection of prose poems and poems may have been cathartic for the author, it’s not very good writing. There’s an overflowing of constant flowery language and a sense of desperation in trying to create images, and ultimately not much of it coheres. There is so much repetition that words and phrases become less effective and meaningful and turn into a drone to be ignored. I wish the author had gone a few rounds with an editor–or, if they did, had been able and willing to edit to develop a more honed work.

The Radium Girls: Young Readers’ Edition by Kate Moore. 1/5
To begin with, while newspapers of the times may have called the women who used radioactive paint to paint clock dials “radium girls,” we now live in a time when we should be calling them women, because they were. Many may have been young, yes, but they were still working women who don’t deserve to be remembered with the belittling name of “girls.” Moore used “girls” in her original edition of this book and does so even more in this “young readers’ edition,” and it’s disrespectful and infuriating.

I’ve read the non-young-readers’ edition of this book, and came away from this edition confused as to who the author and publisher think the young readers’ edition is for. The regular edition is perfectly fine for average readers ages 13 or so and up, and this young readers’ edition lifts whole passages out of it without change. At the at the same time, this new edition includes new text that is astonishingly condescending to readers of, say, 8 and older. So the target audience for this is very unclear. The cutesy material added to dial down the ages for the marketing of the book is pretty horrifying given the seriousness of the topic.

As in the original edition, too, the author spends a lot of time detailing how pretty the dial-painters were, as if their beauty is what made it so awful that they died in the ways that that did, rather than the fact that they were human beings who were routinely lied to in their workplaces. Whether their hairstyles were “cute” or their smiles “shy” is objectifying and irrelevant.

Finally, the writing just isn’t very good. It’s often repetitive and full of tired phrases and cliches, and not terribly compelling. The author introduces errors of scientific fact as well. I can’t in any good faith recommend this book or its original edition because of these myriad issues.

Olav Audunss√łn by Sigrid Undset. 2/5
After reading the translator’s outstanding introduction to this I thought I’d be in for a treat, but alas the repetition and unending grinding of slow-moving plot points and relationships didn’t keep my attention.

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