The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin

I have heard a lot about Ursula Le Guin since I began book blogging, but I have never sat down and actually read anything of hers, so when I randomly saw this in the bookstore, I couldn’t resist. Unlike most books I buy, this one didn’t end up sitting on the shelf indefinitely, instead I picked it up to read it almost immediately. I used to read a lot of science fiction and fantasy and I was craving being completely transported into a different world. The Left Hand of Darkness did that for me, to a point, but never quite completely.

Genly Ai is an envoy for the Ekumen, a collective of 83 planets that is on a mission to join all of the known planets in the universe together in the League of All Worlds. His mission is to get the planet Winter, known as Gethen in the planet’s native language. Gethen is a unique planet for two reasons: 1) it is currently in the grips of an ice age and 2) there are no sexes on Gethen. Gethenians remain in an adrogynous state until they go into kemmer and then one person takes on either the male or female sex.

Needless to say, there is a lot of world building going on here and Le Guin does not make it easy. On the one hand, I am glad that she didn’t. I would rather work hard than have it too easy, but there were times when I definitely needed a little more help. The narratives were often confusing and purposefully vague. Eventually most of the confusion was cleared up, but it did make for frustrated reading sometimes.

Gender and sex were obviously a big part of this book. I loved the way that Le Guin described the citizens of Gethen who were simultaneously male and female and neither. As difficult as it was for Genly Ai (and I’m sure the reader) to understand the Gethenian society, so was it difficult for the Gethenians to understand a bisexual society. Since there were no distinctions of gender, often is was difficult, because of the language restraints of English, to really refer to the Gethenians as anything but him or he. Unfortunately that made you think of a planet of men that were sometimes women. While the narration explicitly addressed this issue (since Genly Ai is a man he sometimes had difficulty thinking of it as any other way), I wonder how it would have been if this had been narrated by a woman or narrated in the third person.

All in all, The Left Hand of Darkness was very thought-provoking, but it didn’t always keep my attention and sometimes kept me confused. The last few chapters really make this book worth reading. This is a classic science fiction novel and one that people will be reading and discussing for years. It’s so hard to believe that this was written over 40 years ago. It’s still very relevant today and will continue to be for a long time.

So go read this!: now | tomorrow | next week | next month | next year | when you’ve read everything else

Neth Space, Grasping for the Wind, Only the Best Science Fiction and Fantasy, Trish’s Reading Nook, Bookshelves of Doom, The Biblio Blogazine, A Librarian’s Life in Books, and things mean a lot all have posts about The Left Hand of Darkness. Do you? Link to it in the comments and I’ll add it here.

Read the World (1) – Some Dream for Fools – Faïza Guène

So, I started this crazy project. It’s not a challenge, because that word makes me fail things. It’s just something I want to do. There’s no time limit, it’s not the most original idea and I’m so excited about it – I’m reading a book by an author from every country in the world.

I’ve been compiling a list of books available in my library system and you can see them all with the tag “read the world” on my GoodReads. I’m about half way through the Wikipedia list of sovereign states. It’s easier to find authors from some countries than for others. I’ve made some exceptions – I’d like it to be all fiction, but I’ve had to include some non-fiction titles and, in some cases, books that are about a country but not by an author of that country. Those are more place holders than anything else.  I will find books published by authors in every country, it just might take me a while to be able to afford them, because they aren’t available in my library.

All of this is to say, this is the first book I read for the project!

Faïza Guène is an Algerian woman who lives in France. She’s toted as one of the best young literary voices in Europe at the moment and writes about the immigrant life in France. This particular novel follows Ahlème while she tries to navigate life in the city, caring for her aging father and younger brother, trying to find permanent employment and her love life. I loved Ahlème and her dark humor and the trials she finds herself in were poignant and relevant.

It’s a relatively short novel, coming in at only 192 pages, and it felt that way. There isn’t exactly a plot, it is just a short segment of Alhème’s life. She muses on what it is like to be an immigrant in France, from fear of deportation to the danger of younger men, like her brother, joining gangs.

This is a good enough book, but unfortunately I found the translation, by Jenna Johnson, to be distracting. I don’t read French, but I have enough experience with translation, translating and reading translations that you just know when one brings you out of what you are reading. I understand – there clearly was a lot of slang in the original. That’s a difficult translating situation, because it’s a fine line between trying to translate the connotation versus trying to translate the exact meaning. I wish I had saved better examples, but this is the one I pulled out:

“He got caught in a vicious circle, that’s all, what can you do?” (101)

Now, before you leave a comment to tell me that that is a perfectly acceptable phrase in English, I really didn’t realize that people said a “vicious circle”, instead of cycle! That may seem like a small thing, but it really pulled me out of the text when I was reading it. Then I saw the Wikipedia article and realized that this is my mistake. So is this regionally based? Or just a gap in my knowledge of idioms?

But this wasn’t the only time the translation distracted me. I think the deeper I get into this project, like the Comic-A-Week project, the more I’ll be able to point out what specifically makes a good translation and what makes a bad one. I wouldn’t call this a bad translation, but it was one that had a lot of challenges and one that could have certainly been better.

All in all, this was a pleasant, informative start to this project. The whole point is to learn about the world through literature and I certainly learned a lot about Algeria and what it is like to be an Algerian immigrant in France. I also imagine that I will pick up Faïza Guène’s books in the future.

So go read this!: now | tomorrow | next week | next month | next year | when you’ve read everything else

Literary License also has a post about Some Dream for Fools. Do you? Link to it in the comments and I’ll add it here.

Reading out of your comfort zone – Lowcountry Summer by Dorothea Benton Frank

We all have our reading comfort zones. Blogging has done nothing if not broadened my comfort zone, but no matter what, there is still a book somewhere that you go into with a lot of presuppositions. For me, that is still the “genre” of women’s fiction, chick lit or a summer read. These are terms I hate, but there aren’t other words to describe what type of fiction I am talking about.

The goal with reading Lowcountry Summer was two-fold. I wanted a warm, summer read to brighten up the dreary Spring and I wanted to venture out of my comfort zone. I want to find an example of this kind of book that I absolutely love. Unfortunately, Lowcountry Summer wasn’t the book to do that.

The worst is when you attempt to read outside of your comfort zone and the book you read only furthers your stereotypes and stereotypes about a genre. Now, I am not saying that these things are inherently bad or mean that a novel is bad, but they are just things that I find to be particularly frustrating or annoying. What frustrates me more is that I know that there are good novels I am missing out on because they are labelled or marketed as this kind of story.

The biggest issue I have is the melodrama. There is a fine line between drama and melodrama. I don’t think melodrama is a pillar of women’s fiction, or only a problem in women’s fiction. One of the biggest offenders of melodrama is, in my opinion, Wally Lamb. Essentially melodrama differs from drama because, according to dictionary.com, “does not observe the laws of cause and effect and that exaggerates emotion and emphasizes plot or action at the expense of characterization.”

Lowcountry Summer is rife with melodrama. Things just happen to people with no purpose and there is one drama or tragedy after another. The characters themselves were flat and their experiences with the drama they were faced with did nothing to make them dynamic.

Another element that never fails to drive me insane is when dialog is used to reveal facts that could easily be shown in the text. It’s almost a cliché at this point to say, “Show don’t tell!” but I truly felt like shouting that out loud as I was reading Lowcountry Summer.

Fortunately, I don’t think that this negative foray into reading out of my comfort zone has destroyed my enthusiasm. There are plenty of books and genres that I only read because they supposedly existed out of this comfort zone and, not surprisingly, many of those books I now call my favorites.

Interestingly, when I read reviews of this book by people who are much more familiar with the genre I found that many people were disappointed by this book, even if they had loved Frank’s books in the past. I’d definitely be willing to give Frank another try in the future, especially after reading some of these reviews. I think there is a lot of great Southern women’s fiction being written and I want to find it. I’ve read books by Anne Rivers Siddons and loved them. Who else would you suggest to fill this gap?

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for sending me this book to review! You can read about other stops on the tour here

The Uncoupling by Meg Wolitzer

When I received The Uncoupling by Meg Wolitzer to review, I read it almost instantly. But let’s be honest, that was back in January and I’m writing this review from this cold, dark place known as the depths of winter. I’m hoping that my future, April self still feels the same way about this book, 3 months later, and is also slightly warmer.

So this is an exercise. An exercise in the staying power of reviews. Perhaps I’ll come back and edit this review before it posts and let you know if I still feel the same way. Maybe I won’t remember any details from The Uncoupling, or maybe I will remember everything.

I always want to be able to come up with those fabulous one sentence descriptions that are quoted on book covers, but I’m not always that clever. For me, it’s difficult to sum up everything I feel about a book in one succinct, perfect line. But indulge me, let me try: Meg Wolitzer deftly creates a conceit that presents the mystery of desire, both its onset and its disappearance, in a playful way that nearly captures the joy and absolute sadness that accompanies that desire.

How’d I do? Slap that on your book cover.

Humor aside, The Uncoupling is the story of a small, progressive New Jersey town where all of the women are suddenly put under a spell that makes them want to refrain from any and all sexual acts. Coincidentally (read: not a coincidence, at all), the new local drama teacher is putting on an adaptation of the play “Lysistrata”, in which the women become celibate to stop a war from happening.

This is not the kind of book that you write a book review about and then move on. It’s the kind of book you want to discuss, that you want to pick apart and debate. There are things about this novel that I loved, because, yes, let’s talk about female desire. Please! But there were also things I did not love. So there are two discussions that I want to have here and they involve spoilers, so stop reading now if you want to remain pure for when you read this book. Because, really, you should read this book.

First let’s talk about identifying setting and time markers in novels. This discussion raged a few months back when Freedom was everywhere. Some people loved how now it was, with references to Priuses and Obama and Twitter; I was one of them. Just before finishing The Uncoupling, I also finished Songs for the Missing by Stewart O’Nan, which had such a definitive time and place (midwestern US, 2005) and it showed. The Uncoupling tries to be a little bit more subtle about it. Though it’s setting is decidedly New Jersey, instead of mention actual products and websites that populate our daily life, Wolitzer invents them, coming up with a fake name for items as ubiquitous as a soda brand. Honestly, I find this to be infinitely more distracting than just having the brand name in the book. Now, Wolitzer did invent a Second Life like website for teens called Farrest, which is okay because something like that doesn’t actually exist. But when your characters are getting annoyed because someone stole their Diet Splurge? Please.

I’ll readily admit that that is personal preference. It in no way affected the way I felt about the book, but it is something I want to talk about. If you were an author and you came to me and you said, “Listen, I’ve been thinking here about including brand names in my book, don’t you think they’ll date me?” And I’ll respond, “Look, authorfriend, it sounds stupid when you’re characters are drinking Diet Splurge when we all know they’re drinking Diet Mountain Dew, even though it tastes awful.” And we will go on being friends and your book will sell millions of copies. Probably.

Now let’s really get into the discussion of this novel. On a certain level I’m afraid that I didn’t “get” this book, because even though I enjoyed it and I thought it was funny, I’m not entirely sure what the point is. As I said in my one sentence review, I do believe it truly is about desire and the different ways that men and women approach desire, but I’m not entirely convinced that this was the way to talk about it. I loved the tongue-in-cheek prose and I loved the mysterious spell that overtook everyone, but at the same time, I hated that spell. I hated that spell because it trivialized a real thing that happens to women. I hated that at the end of the novel, the spell is lifted and everyone goes back to the way things were before, full of desire for one another. I hated that we didn’t actually have a real discussion of female desire.

But I know, this is humor. But what I don’t understand is shouldn’t a book that is applying humor and fantasy to talk about real problems then address those problems as real? Why did the mystery have to be explained? In the same way I felt cheated at the end of Life of Pi, I felt cheated at the end of The Uncoupling. I am smart enough to infer what happened, please don’t lay it all out for me. And what did we conclude at the end? What was missing here was a frank conclusion about sex and desire and not even enough humor to carry the book through its own conclusion.

In the end though, I did really enjoy reading this book. I thought it was funny, the characters compelling and the conceit interesting and unique. I loved the connection to the ancient Greek play, though I did at times think it went a little too literal with it. No, it wasn’t perfect, but this flawed novel is an excellent read. And one that I want everyone to read, if only so we can debate and argue about it. I also know that I will be picking up every book that Meg Wolitzer has ever written.

Thank you to TLC Book Tours for sending me The Uncoupling for review.

Comic-A-Week March 27-April 2 – Hereville by Barry Deutsch

Hereville: How Mirka Got her Sword was, in one word, charming. It’s a sweet comic described as “Yet Another Troll-Fighting 11-Year-Old Orthodox Jewish Girl” and if that doesn’t make you smile, well, I don’t know what will.

Mirka, obsessed with fighting dragons, one day finds a mysterious home in her small, orthodox community that she has never seen before. This fact alone makes it unusual, but most unusual of all is the fact that there is a pig in the front yard. Mirka and her siblings don’t even know what a pig is, since, of course, they practice orthodox Judaism. I don’t want to give away anything, but eventually something to do with this pig means that Mirka gets a wish. What does she wish for? To fight a troll. But you and I have read fairy tales and we know it’s never quite that simple.

There are a lot of things to love about Mirka and her story. I loved the integration of orthodox customs and the Yiddish words that were sprinkled throughout the text. I LOVED the unexpected role of Mirka’s step-mother in the plot. Most of all, I loved Mirka herself. She is 11. She can be selfish, she can be stubborn, she can be kind, she can be wild.

As for the art, I think I really do like black and white work better, but the subdued tones of Mirka’s world were subtle and lovely. The panels are fun and meaningful and Deutsch included at the end a series of panels that show the way he drew all the different designs for the troll. I love extras like this in comics!

So go read this!:  now| tomorrow | next week | next month | next year | when you’ve exhausted your TBR

things mean a lot, 1330V, The Boston Bibliophile, Beth Fish Reads, Welcome to my Tweendom, Bart’s Bookshelves, Madigan Reads and Great Kid Books all have posts on Hereville. Do you? Link to it in the comments and I’ll add your post here.

 

Poetry Wednesday – April is National Poetry Month!

I don’t know how I let the time get away from me like this. We are already well into National Poetry Month, but I wanted to remind you that now is the time to sign up for the Academy of American Poets daily poem! This is really how  I make sure I’m reading enough poetry. No, I don’t get to it every day, but if I have even just five minutes to spare, I can read a lovely poem chosen by the Academy. They choose a variety of poets, styles and forms.

So that’s your friendly reminder of the year, now onto Poetry Wednesday!

Oh, what a happy find this poem is! I’ll be honest, when I don’t have an idea for who I want to feature for poetry, I’ll usually read through a bunch of shorter poems until I find one that is right. Mostly I prefer short poems, but also I think more people will read the poetry I post here if it is short.

Well, break out your attention spans kids, because this poem is awesome. And it is long, but it does not feel long. I love poems that play on languages and being bilingual and “Cultural Stakes” does this perfectly. (Please also see one of my absolute favorite poems “Speaking of the Devil” by Leslie Adrienne Miller.) This poem is beautiful, gritty and surprising.

____________________________________________________________________________________

Cultural Stakes; or, How to Learn English as a Second Language by Kevin A. González

Wait on the corner of Isla Verde & Tartak
for your father to pull up in his Bronco.
Your mother will be right: he will not show up
at noon. At 12:20, you will recognize the horn,
its wail like an amplified conch,
but you will not recognize your father—
the gray stubble, the violent tan.
When he asks where you’d like to go,
say the movies, say La Feria, say the moon:
it won’t matter. You will go to Duffy’s.
When your father says, We’re only here for lunch,
his voice will be as straightforward
as a sandwich menu. The bartender
will greet him like a cousin
in a language you cannot understand.
A stick of incense will burn slow
& its ashes will sprinkle into the tip jar.
Fruit will be rolling inside the slot machine;
darts will flash by like hubcaps. There will be
mirrors with bottles drawn inside them
& not a word of Spanish in the air.
When your father gives you a Coke
with two cherries in it, bite the stem
& bite the stem & swallow the juicy red wounds.
When he gives you a stack of quarters for pinball,
recall the chips he’d stack on the counter
after the casinos closed. Recall the night
your mother left him on the loose stitching of a chair,
the living room as silent as a funeral mass
where nobody stands to give the eulogy.
Don’t ask him what compelled him
to call you today, eighteen months later,
& never admit that his absence
was a moist towel stuffed in your chest,
a constant fatigue of wanting. Don’t tell him
what the nuns at school said about divorce,
that tin bruise on the spirit, & don’t recount
your mother’s remarriage to a man
who is as plain as his own mustache.
Your father will tell you many times
he is not perfect. There will be a sunset
on his cheek & a bonfire in his Adam’s apple
& a coaster beneath his drink like a giant host,
the Scotch putting his tongue to sleep
like a pale stingray on the ocean floor.
When your mother asks what you did,
tell her you watched baseball all weekend
& bury your smoke-swamped shirts
in the bottom of the laundry. Every Friday,
she will watch you climb into that Bronco
& slide away till Sunday, your face
eclipsed by the tinted window’s twilight.
At Duffy’s, the women will be blonde
& they will seem as lonely as broken barstools.
When they speak to you, wait for your father
to translate, then reply to him in Spanish
& wait while he translates for them, & smile,
always smile. There will be something soulful
about this: the way your words become his
& his words become yours, as if the two languages
were shaking hands, casting one long shadow.
When your father brings a woman home, know
that laughter will leak through the doorframe,
that the body is an office always on the verge
of quiet. If she stays the night, the next morning
she might pull out a chair & gently say, sit
& this is how you will learn to concede
whenever a girl with sunlight digging into her cheek
taps your shoulder at the water fountain at school.
There, you will sit in the back row of catechism
& wait for the bell to trill its metal tongue.
You will stumble on the words of prayers
as if the short rope of your faith
was hindered by knots, as if religion was a field
with landmines scattered across. At Duffy’s,
shed the red skin off the bull’s-eye
with the lethal tips of your darts,
slide the smooth grain of the cue stick
over the wings of your thumb. Call all your shots.
Touch the chalk to your forehead
& trace a blue cross. When your father
begins to feed the slot machine’s pout,
remind him to save a ten for the Drive Thru.
He will sit on a stool, pushing the Bet button
as if he believed that if he pushed it enough
he would fill with an air that could raise him.
When the language comes, it will be
as if it had always been inside you.
You will look at things & their names
will drip from your tongue. Abstractions
will be archived as events, & there will be
a history you can instantly shuffle through
whenever a word is uttered. For example,
hustle will be the night your father challenges
a stranger to beat you at darts. Discretion, the night
two of the blondes who cooked you breakfast
sit on stools on either side of you. Impulse
will happen over a rack of pool: your father will say
you have an invisible brother who is better than you
& you will spend the rest of your life competing
with a ghost. Abandon will be your first beer,
a squeezed lemon wedge inside the empty bottle.
Independence will be the moment you realize
the only hands reaching out to you belong to clocks.
Irony, you will come to understand, will be
when you ask your father about those expatriates:
who are they & what are they doing here,
so far from home, & why would anyone
ever leave the place where they were born?
Fortune will be every time your father hits
All-Fruits on the slot. Innocence
will come right after Fortune—every time
you say, Let’s quit while we’re ahead,
not knowing how far behind you really are.

 

The Wilder Life by Wendy McClure


The more nonfiction I read, the more I notice the amount of books, many of them published in the last ten years or so, that combine nonfiction with memoir. They are books that take an investigative topic, such as Laura Ingalls Wilder’s life, and then adds the aspects of the memoir. It’s a compelling format, but sometimes I think it works better than others. In The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of  Little House on the Prairie, I think McClure’s book is a good example of how it can work, there are also times when I wasn’t entirely convinced.

Writing a review of a memoir is always difficult. If you don’t like a memoir, does that mean you don’t like a person? Of course not, but sometimes it feels like you are reviewing a person’s life rather than an author’s book. I want to make it clear that for the most part, I really enjoyed The Wilder Life and what McClure did with the premise, but the ending felt rushed and some of the connections McClure made to her personal life were tenuous. I wanted more reflection about where her journey had taken her, rather than a tidy wrap-up at the end.

One day, when her father and mother are cleaning out their house, McClure rediscovers her childhood favorites: the Laura Ingalls Wilder books. She rereads them and finds herself obsessed with the books and living “the Wilder life”. She peruses message boards, does research, purchases a butter churn. She wants to find any facet of prairie life that she can in the modern world, so she decides to visit all of the existing Wilder museums and homesteads.

As someone who read the books as a child, but was not obsessed with them, it was fun to read about someone who was. I understood completely this kind of obsession. There’s one moment when McClure says she “felt like a fan girl”. I wanted to sit her down and say “Honey, you are a fan girl. Let that flag fly.” And for the most part, she does. McClure is funny, she is intelligent and she asks all the questions you would want someone analyzing the Little House books in 2011 to ask. For example, she asks if Laura is a feminist. She asks if Laura is racist. She examines the questions of poverty and homesteading and anything you would want to know about prairie life.

Beyond that, she also provides and extensive bibliography. If there is anything you could possibly want to know about Laura Ingalls Wilder, her family or her history, you can be sure that McClure has already read it for you. Anywhere you could possibly want to go to learn about Laura, McClure has been there. And she has talked about it in an entirely honest way. Not all Laura exhibits are created equal and McClure is honest about that.

I really liked living in McClure’s world. She’s a candid narrator and I’d love to meet her one day and talk about what it means to be a fan. I feel like Wendy McClure and Melissa Anelli would really get along. I’m certainly happy to have found McClure and her writing and will be picking up her memoir I’m Not the New Me, so if that’s not a recommendation for The Wilder Life,  I’m not sure what is.

So go read this!:  now| tomorrow | next week | next month | next year | when you’ve exhausted your TBR

Do you have a review of The Wilder Life? Link to it in the comments and I’ll add it here.