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This is from Monday. I read it at Project Gutenberg.

Baum is one of my go-tos when I am exhausted because he is not going to emotionally involve me, tends to be short, and is usually interesting. This is one of his more obscure non-Oz books, and I am rather sad it has fallen into obscurity, because I can best describe it as Baum Does Dunsany-- it's straight-up high chivalric fantasy and he isn't half bad at it.

Well, beyond the usual issue with Baum. Yes, there is an instance of appalling and horrific racism in this book. It is about two paragraphs long and is even more blatant than Baum usually gets. It is neither plot-related nor involved with significant character interactions, and was both sufficiently late in the book and sufficiently self-contained that I did not throw the book across the room. Just, you should know to brace for that.

The rest of this is some of his better and more unusual writing. In a standard high-fantasy country, full of castles etc., the inhabitants are aware that there are fairies, although they aren't seen often. A group of high-ranking maidens on a picnic are accosted by a fairy, who states that she is tired of her immortal life, sick of never being able to make mistakes, and annoyed by her own omniscience. The fairy says that, just as fairies have the capacity to change mortal things into other shapes, so mortals have the capacity to change fairies, and asks to be transformed into a mortal for a year and a day.

So they change her into a mortal prince, and he goes off a-questing.

This is like the fifth Baum thing I've read with a protagonist who is in some direction genderqueer. It doesn't read as explicitly feminist here, necessarily-- the fairy fails to separate the fact that mortal women's circumstances are limiting from their capacities being limited-- but it does read as explicitly subversive and intended as subversive; the fairy's a better prince than many and doesn't see any difference in personality after changing gender, and for 1903, well.

The questing is also well done. When I say Baum Does Dunsany, I mean his language is more liquid and rhythmic than usual, there aren't anachronisms or odd turns of phrase, and the whole thing has the air of the pre-Raphaelites and their medieval revivals in a way I haven't seen Baum do before. The Land of Twi, one of the places the protagonist winds up, is genuinely fantastical and striking: everything in it is twinned and acts in duplicate, from plant growth patterns to people, so that individuals who come into it from outside terrify the inhabitants by being only half-persons. There's not much in the way of plot, but there doesn't need to be, and if this is the sort of book you like, you will indeed very much like it.

I found it an unexpected pleasure on a very tired evening.
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My goal today was to read something pleasant and relaxing that was available online for free, because I miscalculated somewhat and just about everything I have to read in the house right now is Serious And Depressing Literature. After Ship Fever I wanted something with slightly less angst. (On this note, does anyone have any recommendations for humor or other light-hearted books? Have read all of Georgette Heyer. I swear it is still sometimes a requirement for something to be taken seriously as a novel that, like, a puppy gets hit by a truck. I am all right with this on occasion but I want some things to alternate it with.) Anyway, I had been going to read Mrs. Beeton's household management book on Project Gutenberg, and then I realized it is about a thousand pages long and it was already past ten p.m., so I read a minor out-of-print Baum instead.

I had heard of this because it was supposed to be doing something interesting with gender, which it is. Unfortunately, and this was really, really problematic and annoying, this book has been hit so hard by the racism fairy that despite the fact that it is actually doing something very interesting with gender I think it is entirely deserved that it is out of print and mostly forgotten. It was wince-worthy and on one occasion throw-across-the-room worthy, except it was on my laptop so I couldn't. The villain is Arabic and just, it was not okay.

The one interesting thing with gender, which is what kept me reading through my growling: there is a main character who is a human child, but who does not have a gender. It was raised by an incubator in a scientific fashion and, as it had no parents to teach it gender characteristics, it has no perceptible gender at all. Baum uses consistently neutral pronouns and is quite successful at using, not gender-neutral descriptive language, but language traditionally used about one gender followed immediately by language traditionally used about the other; it gets called things like 'winsome and frank'. I found that in fact my mental image did not tip one way or the other-- the character has more agency than one would expect of a little girl in many very-early-twentieth-century children's books, but not more than a little girl might have in some of Baum, so it really was plausible as neutral. For a book written in 1906, this is amazing, and I gather from poking about online that his publishers were unhappy about it and kept trying to make him resolve the ambiguity, which he didn't. I can't think of another human character quite like this in a children's book, where there just isn't any gender and no one in-text makes a fuss about it; and it explicitly identifies as neither.

However, despite that, I just can't recommend this novel, because everything remotely related to race really, really was not okay. You know how sometimes there are things that one looks at and is like 'well, people were like that' and one grits one's teeth in annoyance, and then there are things that one looks at and goes 'look, even if people were like that this is worse than what the majority of people who were like that were like and I have lost a lot of respect for this author'? I had known Baum could be pretty bad at race, but this is... okay, the second-worst I've seen out of him, and aaargh.
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It took me forever today to find a book to read. It doesn't usually. I've noticed that since I've started reading a book every day, I go through cycles of having more and less energy; the day after I read something long and complex I need to read something short and/or silly, and sometimes it persists a few days, and also general tiredness or life circumstances make me less inclined to read something that will require effort.

Also, it is actually being a bit difficult to read something new everyday. There's always that vague worry with new books, with new films, with new media in general: what if it's terrible? What if it puts something in my head I don't want in my head and can't get rid of? What if I can tell it's good and am too tired to really think about it and appreciate it? What if it's really good and because I'm too tired and in the wrong mood I don't notice? What if it's the favorite of someone I love and I hate it and they get upset? And so on. I think there are reasons my natural new-book reading speed is slightly slower than this. (Rereading, well. I reread, to paraphrase Le Guin, the way a cow grazes.) There are, in addition, a couple of books I've read that might have done better over a couple of days, to give them more mental room to breathe.

But then, one thing I was curious about when I started this was whether it would be difficult, and what it would do to my reading habits. Except for being more tired and, some days but not all days, slightly less inclined to automatically pick up a book and sit down with it, it hasn't changed those much, in that I still read whatever I feel like reading, and nothing else.

I have been known to think of books spatially... )


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