My November and December Reads

The Cosmopolitan Tradition: A Noble but Flawed Ideal, Martha Nussbaum Book cover - I’m a big fan of Martha Nussbaum, and just happened to check whether she’d published anything recently. This was published in 2019, and was also relevant to my interest in reading more about justice and charity. In this book (which consists of a lecture series), she covers a very interesting topic: why does the cosmopolitan philosophical tradition, which stretches back to the Stoics and Cicero, assign duties of justice toward all other citizens of the world, but not duties of material support to those who are less well off? And can this difference be philosophically justified? Nussbaum concludes that it cannot, and her critiques of the Stoic tradition are quite interesting. I thought Nussbaum faltered in the final section, where she concludes based on fairly weak support that providing effective material aid to people in other countries is practically very difficult. I think the evidence I’ve seen contradicts this position; Nussbaum didn’t even mention GiveDirectly, which seems like the purest form of what she’s talking about, and which is seen as having a good track record. I think Nussbaum may be insufficiently open to radical critiques of the modern geopolitical status quo.

Earthlings, Sayaka Murata - Strap in if you’re going to read this one, it’s one of the weirdest books I’ve ever read! Tons of disturbing stuff happens. I read it in part on the strength of my partner’s appreciation of Convenience Store Woman, and while it seems they both deal with the very interesting-to-me topic of questioning societal conventions, my impression is that Earthlings goes waaay farther down that road. I might still want to read the earlier book, but wouldn’t necessarily recommend this one.

Where the Wild Ladies Are, Aoko Matsuda - I’ve picked up a number of books this year based on reading their blurbs in the LitHub annual book preview, and overall the track record has not been great–it’s easy for a book’s concept to be a good match for my interests, yet not come together into something I like on the page. This one was an exception, though–both the concept and the execution were great! It’s structured as a set of short stories, which, while loosely connected to each other, can easily be read as stand-alones. The blurb describes it as “feminist retellings of traditional Japanese folktales,” and it is that, but definitely transcends that simple description. These are ghost stories where the ghosts are not sources of fear, but just echoes of the past living on with us. In that way, it’s much like Pu Songling’s Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio, but Matsuda’s work feels more “told from the inside”–we get more of a modern sense of the interiority of the characters here than is available in those ancient stories.

The Islands of Sina Una, The Deck of Many - I have a strong interest in Filipino mythology and folklore, and I love playing D&D, so naturally I’m into a book like this that puts the two together! I’ve thought before about writing up 5th edition stat blocks for various Filipino mythological creatures, but it’s much better to have it done by a group of creators with Filipino heritage. I actually learned first about another project, Islands & Aswangs, but that one is interminably delayed, whereas Sina Una actually shipped! I felt a little uncertain about the game balance of some of the classes and subclasses introduced in the book, but it’s a wonderful campaign setting and source of lore overall. I’m hoping to write more about this later.

Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything, Wizards RPG Team - This is a major supplement for 5e D&D, and for the first time I sprang for the alt cover version because it’s so cool looking! The content of the book is mostly slightly tweaked reprints of things they’ve already published as Unearthed Arcana, so mostly not hugely new. The main big thing is alternate rules that decouple character stats from character race, which I think is a very positive thing both in terms of de-essentializing race and in just making more fun options available in the game. The end section on puzzles was disappointing, though–a lot of variations on the basically boring theme of alphabetical cyphers.

Serpentine, Philip Pullman - I listened to this as an audiobook (narrated by Olivia Colman, aka Queen Elizabeth for fans of “The Crown”!), and it was about 20 minutes long–it’s a little side vignette in the world of “His Dark Materials” and “The Book of Dust.” It happens between The Amber Spyglass and before The Secret Commonwealth, and definitely primes the more melancholy atmosphere of the latter book, with Lyra making her uneasy transition into adulthood. A clear recommend for people who like the relevant series.

Lost Children Archive, Valeria Luiselli - Read on the recommendation of my partner, who’s now read it twice! It took me a while to really get into, but it’s a strong and thought-provoking work. I think Luiselli walks several fine lines very gracefully: somewhat formally experimental without being a distraction; incorporating a lot of references to other literature and music without seeming name-checky; riffing on the American road trip novel without being too precious about it; writing about an important current events issue without sacrificing artistry. Luiselli writes her child characters extremely well; they’re genuinely funny in the weird way that kids are, as well as being touching. Finally, I thought I had worked out how the story would end by about 85% of the way through, but I was actually wrong! I’d recommend this to almost anyone, although with a warning for people with young kids that might find some sections difficult to read (nothing exploitative though).

Plain Bad Heroines, emily m. danforth - Did not finish, although it wasn’t an easy call to put down! The book weaves together a very Shirley Jackson-esque Gothic tale at a Rhode Island boarding school for girls in the early 20th century with a modern story of aspiring actors and Instagram influencers producing a movie about the older story. The older story is a delight, and was almost enough to keep me reading. But I didn’t really enjoy the modern story, and I especially wasn’t into the extremely chatty narrator. I probably would have stuck with it if the book weren’t 600+ pages!

Transcendent Kingdom, Yaa Gyasi - I enjoyed reading this, but didn’t think it was as strong as her first novel Homegoing. The overall concept is sort of unsubtle–a neuroscientist studies reward-seeking behavior as she grapples with her brother’s death by opioid overdose and her mother’s depression–but Gyasi is a good enough writer to keep it compelling, and breathes some life into it with the additional themes of science and religious faith. Much like Homegoing, this book has a sort of weirdly tidy ending that kind of comes out of nowhere. I may just skip the last chapter if I read a future novel of hers! Also, I have to say that it was weird in 2020 to read a book where an opioid overdose was a major plot point, yet that had no mention of the corporate malfeasance and systemic disinformation we no know surrounded the explosion of opioid prescriptions. I understand that it’s just not the kind of story Gyasi was interested in telling, but at the same time, I think it’s not great to have a story where Nana’s death is portrayed as an individual or, at most, a family problem.

Exploring Eberron, Keith Baker - Is Eberron the best D&D setting? It might be a tie with Planescape for me, but the latter hasn’t had a 5e sourcebook published yet. I’m a player in an Eberron campaign that is currently sadly on hiatus. More than any of the other settings, I think Eberron is interested in complicating and questioning traditional fantasy tropes, rather than leaning into them, and as such has the most room to tell new and different stories. A lot of this must be due to its creator, Keith Baker. This isn’t the official 5e Eberron book, but a sort of miscellany published by Baker. There’s a ton of content here, which I enjoyed reading about, but I think the book is mainly of use to Eberron DMs more so than players. I think Keith does awesome work though, and was very happy to support it!

Ministry for the Future, Kim Stanley Robinson - An interesting and ambitious book; the first science fiction I’ve read about climate change (and despite KSR being a very prolific author, the first book of his that I’ve read). The book combines a traditional novelistic narrative following two main characters with a more “polyphonic” style that intersperses chapters written in the voices of unnamed peripheral individuals and essayistic chapters written more in the voice of the novelist himself. I think this works pretty well for such a sweeping topic as climate change, and while I only found the main narrative and characters OK, I always looked forward to the more varied chapters. As someone who works for a central bank, it was interesting to me how crucial of a role central bankers play in this narrative–and I have to say, I think KSR must know some of us, because he nails the characterization! This book may be classified as sci-fi since it takes place in the future, but it struck me as a very realistic perspective on what kind of effort might be necessary to really arrest climate change–notably, driven by people in the global south, and blending concerted international efforts, unilateral national decisions, and quite a bit of propaganda of the deed. As the flip side of the prominent role of central bankers, it was interesting to me how little focus KSR gave to democratically elected legislatures in the story. I wonder how intentional this choice was.