#127 – The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. Le Guin
- Read: 9/13/18 – 9/17/18
- Challenge: Mount TBR (113/150)
- Rating: 5/5 stars
The best of all the Hainish Cycle books I’ve read so far.
I first read this many years ago, and what I remembered most coming back to this was the beautifully desolate trek Genly Ai and Estraven take across the Ice, as well as the pangs of an almost-romance that had to remain a friendship, because of the alienness of each to the other.
The first time I read it, I was neither politically saavy enough, nor aware/educated enough in nonbinary gender issues, to truly grasp the magnitude of what Le Guin set out to accomplish with this novel. Years later, it turns out the politics of Ai’s status as Envoy were actually pretty simple to follow, but the vast ocean of gender politics remains deep and intriguing. This novel is one of the few in the sci-fi canon that, to me, truly embody an alien viewpoint, that has created what is undoubtedly Other.
And yet, Estraven, as a proxy for his people, is so relatable, so human, that the extrapolation of a society without true gender, and thus without gender roles, becomes possible. The Gethenians are a hard people, shaped by an unforgiving planet, and yet they are also generous in hospitality. Their societal structure is odd, even when their forms of government seems recognizable: the two countries Ai visits are a monarchy and a bureaucracy, but the peoples they oversee live quite different lives than we do, as the idea of a nuclear family is absent from both nations.
In addition, their unspoken codes of honor and etiquette, shifgrethor, never fail to fascinate me; the way Estraven and Ai can both have the best of intentions, even work toward the same purpose, and yet be at odds with each other because one can’t understand the core principles of the other. This is not a shallow culture clash, but a foreshadowing in miniature of the difficulties the Gethenians, as a planet, will likely experience in joining the Ekumen, Le Guin’s epic League of Worlds that spans all the works of the Hainish Cycle.
Every detail, every theme, stands up to close inspection as vital and thought-provoking. You could examine this story from any angle and come up with something worth further contemplation.
#128 – The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, by Simon Winchester
- Read: 9/17/18 – 9/18/18
- Challenge: Mount TBR (114/150); Expand Your Horizons — Nonfiction; PopSugar Reading Challenge
- Task: A bestseller from the year I graduated high school
- Rating: 3/5 stars
The good part: the process of dictionary-making, especially something as ambitious and complex as the OED, is simply fascinating to me. Winchester provides a solid overview of the history behind it, as well as the problems inherent in Murray’s system, and a detailed explanation of how elegantly revolutionary Dr. Minor’s contributions were.
Fortunately, this was the biggest chunk of the book.
The bad part: basically everything else, but the worst to me, by far, is the end, with its rampant, unsupported speculation about Dr. Minor, the causes and triggers of his mental illness, and the tenor of his relationships to several people in his life; including hypothesizing that Minor was driven (further) mad by harboring desires for the widow of the man he murdered.
What? When did this go from “Nonfiction – History” to “Speculative Fiction?”
I could deal with the high-falutin’ wordiness of Winchester’s style, especially when the book is literally about lexicography. But I can’t deal with deliberate sensationalism, so it’s disappointing that this book is so badly marred by it at the end.
#129 – A Passionate Man, by Joanna Trollope
- Read: 9/18/18 – 9/19/18
- Challenge: Mount TBR (115/150)
- Rating: 1/5 stars
DNF @ page 40. I wanted to stop sooner, but I try to read at least 10% of a book before I ditch it.
I didn’t like the writing style. I couldn’t connect with any of the characters. And two things revealed in the story early on bothered the *#$@ out of me.
First: the “happy couple” origin story is a major red flag. Archie meets Liza at her own engagement party, and over the next ten days he woos her away from her fiance. Then they go on a two-week vacation together, presumably to bang like bunnies, then they get married. I’m guessing this whirlwind romance is supposed to impress upon me how “passionate” Archie is? But really, stealing someone’s betrothed is terrible, and Liza’s pretty terrible for going along with it, and I’m thoroughly impressed alright–WITH HOW WRONG THIS IS.
If there were some sort of mitigating circumstances around her original fiance, like he’s abusive and she’s trapped in that relationship, or it’s a sham marriage for money or ANYTHING like that, that would be one thing, but for all we the readers know at that point, he and Liza were perfectly happy together before Archie showed up.
Second: if that near-miss adultery wasn’t enough, one of Liza’s (much younger but still adult) coworkers is depicted as fawning over her constantly. She acknowledges in POV narrative that he’s got a crush on her, and tries to tell herself it’s harmless flirting, and she even flirts back–but whatever we’re supposed to believe she thinks, the whole scene just screams incipient adultery to me.
ADULTERY IS NOT INHERENTLY INTERESTING. I WILL KEEP SHOUTING THIS IN REVIEWS WHENEVER I SEE IT UNTIL THE WORLD PAYS ATTENTION. I DO NOT WANT TO READ ABOUT IT.
So I’m not.
Maybe I’m wrong and Liza doesn’t cheat, but even so, I don’t feel like I’m missing out on a good book if I stop now, because I already didn’t like it.
#130 – To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, by Jenny Han
- Read: 9/19/18
- Rating: 5/5 stars
I read this in one sitting. That’s how much I loved it.
I am not Lara, and she is not me, but I get her. I can see echoes of myself in the way her fears manifest, the way she flirts without even realizing she is (a common mistake of mine at that age,) and in her desperate need to do everything right.
When I can empathize with a character’s flaws as deeply as their strengths, I know I’ve got a good protagonist on my hands.
And yeah, Peter’s pretty cool, too.
I’m not usually a fan of love triangles, but this is barely one, because Josh was obviously never a real option; but the tension that arises out of him thinking he could be kept the story moving at a good clip.
In fact, the pacing might be my only (minor) complaint. Sometimes I would turn a page and see the chapter was over and think, what? Some scenes were short to the point of abruptness, and they didn’t always end in a way that felt natural. Compared to how much I loved everything else, though, this is just a nitpick.
#131 – Queen of Broken Hearts, by Cassandra King
- Read: 9/20/18
- Challenge: Mount TBR (116/150)
- Rating: 1/5 stars
In media res is a valid strategy for opening a book, but not if you constantly allude to the backstory, circling around and around it, without ever explaining it.
DNF @ 10%, page 51, without a single sign of a real plot in sight.
Sure, there are tons of characters. But not one of them in ever introduced. I started to wonder if this was second in a series, because that’s how obtuse everything was–I was simply supposed to know who all these people in this small town were, just like I was the main character.
But I don’t? And it isn’t.
The most I was able to put together was that Clare, our MC, had two really good male “friends” (most of the fifty pages I read were spent in laboriously drawn-out conversation with one or the other) who were going to be the spokes of her love triangle. That was clear. But the story opens with her desperately trying to avoid this guy, this awful, terrible guy, but who he is to her is not made at all clear. Eventually she mentions that she went to college with him and Dory (his wife) and Mack (??? except that he’s dead.) But then who is Dory? Why is Clare so concerned that she got back together with her husband? Why is he so awful?
I know the answers to none of these things, but I know a lot about drinking wine at four in the afternoon in a garden. The atmosphere is so folksy I couldn’t stand it.