#141 – Four Ways to Forgiveness, by Ursula K. Le Guin
- Read: 10/10/18 – 10/12/18
- Rating: 5/5 stars
I loved it. I didn’t realize when I picked it up I was about to read sci-fi liberally spiked with actual romance; romance has rarely been more than a passing subplot in all the Le Guin I’ve read, and certainly nothing like this has appeared in the Hainish Cycle works up to this point.
So, being a fan, I was surprised and pleasantly impressed with the depth of feeling in each novella, the importance given to love and personal connection, contrasted with the larger workings of culture and society that the Hainish Cycle usually focuses on near-exclusively.
I was charmed by the small ties between the novellas, even an occasional recurring character. The four stories are definitely distinct and carry slightly different tones, variations on the theme of forgiveness, but they’re similar enough to feel like a unified whole at the end. (Which is a feat in and of itself.)
I thought when I read The Left Hand of Darkness I had seen the best of the cycle, and I still think maybe I have, but this runs an extremely close second.
#142 – A Day Late and a Dollar Short, by Terry McMillan
- Read: 10/13/18 – 10/14/18
- Challenge: Mount TBR (123/150); Expand Your Horizons — #ownvoices
- Rating: 1/5 stars
I couldn’t make myself keep going. DNF @ page 50.
The three characters I got POV chapters from are all unlikable in their own unique ways, but unified in how they present their narratives as though nothing is ever their fault. And that’s most of what’s on the page–whining about how none of them have gotten a fair shake, how someone else is responsible for their misery, how they’d be better “if only” this, that or the other thing.
It’s natural for most people to do some blame-shifting in their lives, I get that. But this was fifty solid pages of “I love my (son/husband/wife), but… (this is how they’re awful and I can’t stand them anymore.)”
Very little actually happens in each chapter. Viola’s, at the start, has her in the hospital after an asthma attack, and her husband comes to see her briefly. His chapter, next, has him realizing he’s forgotten his car keys in her room and stalling as long as possible before going to retrieve them, because he doesn’t actually want to see his wife again. And their son Lewis, the third POV chapter’s character? Near as I could tell, he’s actually not doing anything at all but whining.
Fifty pages of miserable family-backstory exposition dump. I couldn’t find a reason to get invested in any of these characters.
#143 – The Bookseller of Kabul, by Åsne Seierstad
- Read: 10/14/18 – 10/16/18
- Challenge: Mount TBR (124/150); Expand Your Horizons — Nonfiction; PopSugar Reading Challenge
- Task: A book involving a bookstore or library
- Rating: 2/5 stars
What you see is not what you get.
The title and blurb both imply that the story will be about the “bookseller,” the head of an Afghani family who defies whatever regime is in power in order to sell books. And it does, for a little while, look that way at the start, detailing the measures that Sultan Khan takes to continue to sell books that are prohibited.
But most of the book is about the members of his family, portraying their daily life and the struggles of the family power dynamics.
That still might have been an interesting book, though a depressing one; women have absolutely no agency, and reading about their constant misery and mistreatment is difficult.
But Seierstad’s decision to present this as literary nonfiction, effectively erasing herself from the narrative, is one that in the end, I don’t personally agree with. The text is book-ended with her personal observations, revelations, explanations, and justifications; I went into the narrative knowing that she was present even if she chose not to include herself. And at the end, when she gave a brief rundown of what happened immediately after she left the family, I was shocked and disappointed–several of the least-respected, most downtrodden family members left, a move that defies everything we learned about them in the book and which would have made a far more interesting story, but also made it hard to believe that Seierstad had no influence or impact on the life of the family, as the style of her narrative suggests.
I understand not including the family separation, as she wasn’t present for that, and that’s the conceit of the book–her as the chronicler. But it simply doesn’t hold up, especially when the prologue presents this as an “atypical” Afghani family worth reading about because of their involvement with books, but the epilogue admits that they were actually fairly typical after all, because while they had more money than most, Khan refused to spend it on his family, so they lived poorly anyway and didn’t deviate much, if at all, from traditional values.
When this was first published, it might have been shiny and new and interesting to people who knew little about Afghanistan, with whom my country has been at war for well over a decade now; but I’ve educated myself from other (apparently more reliable) sources, and this didn’t give me anything worthwhile.
#144 – The Vixen and the Vet, by Katy Regnery
- Read: 10/16/18 – 10/17/18
- Challenge: Mount TBR (125/150)
- Rating: 2/5 stars
Some things are done well, and others are unbelievable, trite, or cheesy as hell.
Savannah goes from a career-driven woman to a sappy pile of goo in less time than it takes to melt a marshmallow. Not that Asher’s not appealing, because he is–I’m a sucker for a sensitive dude–but they really race to the finish line on their romance.
Asher may be badly scarred by the injuries he sustained during his service, but he’s not convincing as the “Beast” or even just a loner hermit when Savannah pulls him out of his shell after only a few visits. While I have no personal experience with the subject, I’ve seen/read enough to know that it can take years of therapy to overcome traumatic events similar to Asher’s–so Savannah’s presence/meddling “fixing” Asher in so short a time is like her waving a magic wand.
That being said, if you ignore the speedy time frame, Asher does actually deal with his problems on his own, which I appreciate. Savannah doesn’t make him better by existing–she makes him want to deal with his issues in a constructive manner. Which is the way “love can fix anything” narratives should work; love might be the catalyst, but the person has to actually do the work. Which Asher does.
The big fight and the happy ending? Strong mixed feelings. On the one hand, it’s a truly legitimate conflict; Savannah’s (heavily edited, not-as-intended) article constitutes a huge betrayal, even if we know it was an unintended one. Asher has every right to toss her ass out the door, whether he believes her innocence or not, because she’s brought tons of unwanted attention and scrutiny into his life.
On the other hand, when she writes “the real story” and that solves all, 1) it’s so cheesy I almost reached for my lactase supplements, and 2) it’s distractingly meta, as the fictional book is for charity, just like the actual book it’s featured in.
Other small things bothered me. Asher’s scars, while described as truly disfiguring, were also given so much page space that I felt like I was intended to fetishize them–look how awesome I am that scars like this don’t bother me! I liked the story much better when Savannah got to the point where she stopped noticing them, not because that meant I could pretend they didn’t exist, but so I didn’t have to feel like I was supposed to be attracted to Asher because of his scars. I also got tired of the repetitious mentioning of certain key phrases to evoke specific moments–if I don’t ever have to read “your/her sister’s sundress” or “with a plate of brownies” again, EVER, I’ve still seen it too often. Kill your darlings!
Asher being super-likable, if not entirely believable, saved this from being a DNF, but I’m not impressed with the whole package.
#145 – Grendel, by John Gardner
- Read: 10/17/18 – 10/18/18
- Challenge: Mount TBR (126/150); Expand Your Horizons — Banned Books
- Rating: 2/5 stars
I didn’t love it, but I didn’t hate it. I’m just not sure, a year from now, I’m going to remember it.
The prose is often bizarre; I don’t hate it, but I can’t see what purpose it serves until it makes me sympathize more deeply with Grendel. And it doesn’t.
For all that Beowulf doesn’t give us about the monster or his mother, that this tale might be setting out to rectify, I still have questions. There are still gaps.
But I’m not sure I still care? I’m more bewildered than anything else. It’s unsettling and sometimes creepy, but it can’t settle on a consistent voice to underlay and support the variation of tone.
Literary fanfiction usually leaves me disappointed, and I think this falls into that category. Next time I read Beowulf I don’t think my experience will be enriched by having read Grendel, and I don’t think it really scratched the itch it was supposed to.