This Week, I Read… (2020 #49)

#173 – The Unreal and the Real: The Selected Short Stories of Ursula K. Le Guin, by Ursula K. Le Guin

  • Read: 12/17/20 – 12/23/20
  • Mount TBR: 150/150
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

I generally liked the “unreal” stories and generally disliked the “real” stories. I don’t think Le Guin is at her best when trying to stick too closely the real world–I’ve always enjoyed how she combines SF/F elements and her anthropological bent on writing to examine humanity through the “unreal.”

The notable exception in Part I of the anthology was “The Diary of the Rose,” which I loved. Other favorites: “The Fliers of Gy,” “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” and “The Author of the Acacia Seeds,” which might be my new favorite UKLG short story of them all, and unlike “Omelas,” one I’d never heard of prior to reading this collection.

So why didn’t I like most of the stories I didn’t like? The Orsinian tales at the beginning were dour and stereotypically bland to me–they read like Orsinia was a predictable extension of Western thoughts on Eastern European countries, but without anything new or interesting to differentiate their fictional culture from its real-world counterparts. That bleak tone also cropped up in several other stories, and I didn’t care for it. Another reason was that many of the shortest stories didn’t go anywhere, didn’t have much in the way of plot, and/or didn’t feel done when they were suddenly over. I was reminded too often of that “what the heck” feeling I got earlier this year reading Cloud Atlas when the first chunk of narrative cuts off abruptly mid-sentence, because some of these stories felt similarly truncated and incomplete.

In a career so long and varied, I’m not going to like everything by even one of my all-time favorite authors, so I’m not particularly heartbroken, only mildly disappointed. And it’s possible, even likely, that coming back to some of these stories in a few years will change my perspective and make me appreciate them more, because I’ve found rereading her work to be valuable in the past. But overall, and right now, there seem to be as many misses as hits in this collection.

#174 – The Replacement Crush, by Lisa Brown Roberts

  • Read: 12/23/20 – 12/24/20
  • Mount TBR: 151/150
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

While I enjoyed the story overall, I also had a lot of issues with it. Call it a 2.5 I’m rounding up for Goodreads’ no-half-star system.

Vivian as a narrator could be irritating, but not so much that I ever wanted to put down the book because of it. Mostly I think she and her close female friends are a reasonable approximation of teenagerhood–they sound like teenagers to me, when half the time I read YA and teens sound either like ten-year-olds or adults, with no in-between.

That being said, I’m not convinced Dallas is a teenager, not because he doesn’t talk like one, but because anyone that accomplished in life by 17 or 18 (I don’t remember his exact age being specified, but he’s a senior, so that’s my ballpark figure) is not going to have social skills to match his feats of computer coding, cello playing, and the surprise “twist” skill that gets revealed at the end which I won’t spoil, but took me right out of the book for a minute. Vivian has a single teenage passion/hobby and a skill set based around it–she loves books, she works in a bookstore, she’s a book blogger. See how all those go together? While Dallas is handsome (in a nerdy way, which Viv never lets us forget,) reasonably charming, and he’s fantastic at everything he does, which when added together, is beyond my suspension of disbelief.

Compared with everyone else in the cast, major and minor characters alike, Dallas doesn’t feel like a real person. I get that romances can be escapism and wish fulfillment, but the rest of the book felt real (if occasionally over-dramatic) and Dallas simply didn’t fit, because he was too perfect. The only substantial flaw I could come up with when thinking about him was that he’s a bit argumentative, but a) so is Vivian, and b) he likes that in a romantic partner, so the story doesn’t view it as a flaw the same way I might if Dallas were a friend of mine in real life.

As for more minor complaints, I wondered for most of the book where the subplot involving the rock-star-in-hiding was going, and when it wrapped up, I wished it hadn’t been a part of the book, it was pretty weak.

This had its cute moments and I never wanted to throw it across the room, but by the end I was ready for it to be over, and I’m not going to seek out any of the author’s other work.

#175 – Paper Towns, by John Green

  • Read: 12/24/20 – 12/25/20
  • Mount TBR: 152/150
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

The good thing is that I found the writing style incredibly easy to read, and since my familiarity with John Green prior to this is entirely through Crash Course, I’m used to listening to him talk; he writes in much the same way.

The bad thing was literally everything else. I hated the story. I didn’t like most of the characters, who had quirks in place of personalities, even beyond our Manic Pixie Dream Girl Margo. And yes, I’m still calling her that even though the story is clearly meant to subvert the trope. Margo only swoops in to radically alter Quentin’s life briefly, then disappears, which is usually the whole MPDG plot, but here it’s only half the book, and the second half is Quentin chasing her, even while realizing he had never really known her and placed her on a sort of pedestal. That should be better. I should like that more, I love trope subversions and deconstructions. But it led to an ending that didn’t feel satisfying, and somehow that’s the point, and I don’t think that’s a particularly enriching experience for me, who’s not a teenage boy on the cusp of manhood who needs to realize that other people are actually people and not limited collections of ideas living in his own brain.

I could go off on a long tangent here about my relationship with people-as-idea-collections and the inherent inability to ever truly know another person fully, but my bent on it is almost always romantic, and that’s not relevant here, because the “romance” is only a function of the MPDG structure, and the ending demonstrates that to be a lie as well. I never expected this to be a romance so I’m not disappointed it’s not, but since romance is my preferred genre, it’s tough for me to get behind a story that’s basically it’s diametrical opposite, where the entire point is that no one falls in love at the end and Quentin’s “love” for Margo throughout the book wasn’t real.

Since the other major criticism I often hear leveled at Green is that his novels are all basically the same, now I know I don’t have to read any others. He isn’t telling stories that I personally find valuable.

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