Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category
The Unreal and the Real: Selected Stories of Ursula K. Le Guin
Ursula K. Le Guin
Small Beer Press
I usually tear through books, fast. At the end of the week, I’m startled by how many I have read even when I feel like I haven’t had enough time for reading. This week, though, I’ve spend nearly all of my time immersed in this one book.
I don’t know why I haven’t read Le Guin before, now. Her sentences are beautiful. I liked several of the stories in volume one, but volume two is the book that really enthralled me.
Can I mention “Solitude?” It described a world inhabited by introverts, who make a powerful distinction between ‘people’ (which they most definitely are not) and ‘persons.’ I don’t think I’ve ever read anything quite like it before. The point of view of a young woman of two worlds, the gradual unfolding of how the persons of Eleven-Soro understand themselves and their world, is something I’m going to come back to again and again.
“Poacher” startled me and delighted me at the same point, when I realized that I was reading a familiar story without recognizing it.
It’s not hard to understand why I’ve heard of “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” even though I haven’t read it before, and it’s not hard to understand how it has made its way into a variety of classrooms.
I will keep both volumes of this collection, but volume two is the book I think I’ll be rereading soonest. I had no idea this was what Le Guin was like, and now I feel a little silly for having failed to read her before. I’ll likely be reading one of her novels in the not-too-distant future.
I don’t know anything about reality, but I know what I like.
How to Sharpen Pencils: A Practical and Theoretical Treatise on the Artisanal Craft of Pencil Sharpening
I am a junior high school teacher, which means that pencils, and the sharpening of them, is a large concern for me. At my school, as in most public schools, students take a truly shocking number of standardized tests. Every year, there is the year-end state standardized test, a high-stakes test. High-stakes for the school, that is, which stands to lose reputation and funding depending on scores. There are no stakes at all for the students taking the test; there is no reward for doing well, no penalty for doing poorly- indeed, the test does not even appear on a child’s report card.
In addition to the year-end test, there are three pre-tests, administered at the beginning of the year, just after Christmas vacation, and about a month before the state test. These are as long as the state test itself, and take about three days to administer- more than a week, when one includes the make-up testing of students who are absent.
In addition to those, there are ‘benchmark tests.’ These are shorter tests, which take only one full class day to administer, and they are given once a month.
That’s a lot of number 2 pencils.
There is a nationwide move toward computer-based testing, which is coming in with the Common Core Standards. However, my school, like so many public schools, but unlike most businesses, is ill-equipped to supply every person with a functional computer. So the tests, for now, still use number 2 pencils. Many, many number 2 pencils.
In the past, I have used an electric pencil sharpener. But the heavy use by hundreds of tweens is too much for any electric pencil sharpener in a public school teacher’s budget. The sharpeners break quickly, and cannot be repaired. They are expensive to replace. Electric pencil sharpeners are also noisy, and get much louder as they approach the end of their miserable life. They are not, I think, a good solution for my classroom.
In the wall of my classroom there is a small piece of wood. It is clearly meant to be the installation point for a hand-cranked pencil sharpener. However, the construction of the building used up all of the budget, and my school, when deciding how to furnish the building, had to do without such luxuries as pencil sharpeners, clocks, and American flags. So my flag-stand stands empty, and the wood pencil-sharpener base remains sharpenerless, and many of my students, accustomed to cell phone displays, are unable to read an analog clock.
Small things matter.
If this book has a purpose beyond humor, it is to remind us that there is pleasure to be taken in small things, and that, the closer we pay attention to anything, the more important it becomes. There really is an aesthetic pleasure in a simple wooden pencil, well-sharpened, and it’s a pleasure that I rarely enjoy, with my Pilot G2 pens and my mechanical pencils.
I enjoyed reading this book. It made me smile. It also taught me a few things I did not know about pencils and their sharpening.
Inspired, I have installed a small hand-held single blade sharpener in my classroom. Its manufacturer intended it to be used as a key ring, but I have attached a chain to it and hung it near my trash can. It is virtually silent. It will last for years. It cost less than $5. As far as I can tell, it is superior to my long line of loud, short-lived electric pencil sharpeners in every way. I feel proud for having solved a minor problem so neatly.
Volume One: Where on Earth
I made my way through the first four stories in the collection growing gradually more bored. I’ve never really read LeGuin before, I think, although I’m aware of her reputation. I’ve heard that she is a beautifully skilled writer, a little inclined to be preachy but still worth reading and important to anyone who wants to be a well-read science fiction reader. I don’t really know anything more than that.
I recognized from the first paragraph that she was a master of craft at the sentence level. I have a lot of respect for anyone who can put a really good sentence together- it’s a skill that sometimes gets a little lost, even by people whose plots are first-rate. But I couldn’t quite see the point of the first four stories. I’m sure I was missing something, and maybe when I try them again I will be illuminated by them, but this time, I was left with, “Yes, those are very pretty words… so?”
But then I got to “The Diary of the Rose.” And I was … I was profoundly immersed in the story, both the character and the ideas. It’s about a doctor who uses a technology that looks inside a person’s mind. She thinks of herself as a healer, but a patient gradually shows her that she is also the tool of a deeply corrupt, totalitarian state. She heals, but her work is also used to harm. I related deeply to this story, because I felt a connection to my work as a public school teacher.
When I focus on the day-to-day work I do, I feel that my work is meaningful, that I do something truly useful in the world. I feel good about what I do. But when I think about the larger picture, about American public education as a whole, I am filled with doubts. Right now, the system is a mess, with America’s children, especially its poorest children, used as pawns in political games that have nothing to do with the country or the well-being of its smallest citizens and everything to do with political power and corporate profit.
What is the ethical choice? To stay, and try to do good in a system that is broken on levels so high my voice can’t be heard no matter how loudly I shout? To fight? To leave? And what is the practical choice? I have to make a living, to pay the mortgage and feed the cats and keep myself supplied with books, and teaching is the work I know how to do and can do reasonably competently.
“The Diary of the Rose” made me think of all of that. I suppose almost everyone who works, works within systems that are evil and corrupt in one way or another. Don’t they? Is there any kind of work in which a person can be useful and contented and not be part of a machine that harms others? Teaching is supposed to be one of the pure, idealistic professions; if I’m not the one with that job, who has it?
I’ll bet it pays poorly.
Of course, I don’t have to be a middle-class professional person. I could quit. “Drop out,” as the kids used to say. Live cheaply, and flip burgers or join an assembly line or something. But even those jobs are part of big, complex systems that hurt people.
Am I just a cynic? It can’t be true that the human race is just corrupt on a systemic level, can it?
So the solution is to try not to think so hard about the big picture. Within my own classroom, I can teach tweens to read and write better than they do now. I can introduce them to the idea that wisdom and information are both found in books, and that ideas matter. I can provide 45 minutes in which no one is shouting at them or threatening them, and free their parents to earn money to feed and clothe them. Maybe the system is broken, but it’s what we have, and there’s room in it for happiness and for growth, if I focus my attention on what I can do and let go of the things I don’t control.
But that isn’t what Dr. Sobel decides. And maybe she’s the one of us who is making the right choice.
Most of what I just wrote wasn’t really about “The Diary of the Rose.” But that’s what I was thinking about while I read it. Someone else, with a different life, will have different thoughts. It’s that kind of story. I think that it might have been worth the $24 I spent on the book, all by itself.
I’m not finished reading The Unreal and the Real yet. I’m not finished with volume one yet. I just finished that one story, just now, sitting in my classroom monitoring students who are taking mind-crushingly tedious standardized tests, and had a head full of thoughts I wanted to write down.
Life, the Universe and Everything
I know I’m not the first person to notice it, but Douglas Adams really was something very close to a genius.
But what I didn’t realize until today is that Life, the Universe and Everything might be his best book. I always just assumed it was either The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, because it’s the most well-known book, or Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, which I just think is brilliant. But now, resting on my sofa (not a Chesterfield) after finishing re-reading this book for the I-can’t-even-begin-to-guess-how-manyth time, I think this might be the work in which he achieves a perfect blend of entertainment and the communication of a serious point about the absurdity of existence and the tragedy of human limitations.
It’s all about the people of Krikkit. The people of Krikkit could be a criticism of the United States. Or it might describe Nazi Germany. I read it in 2012 and think of the harm caused by the kind and well-meaning people of fundamentalist Christianity as it is currently practiced. Or fundamentalist Islam. Or any of the many groups of nice people who have decided that the world will be so much better once everyone is like them. It is timeless and universal, because it describes what happens when people who are used to seeing only people like themselves encounter people who are profoundly different- and what happens, usually, is fear, followed by an immediate need to eliminate the Other. And that is something that has happened so many times that it’s a cliche. It’s why we should not look forward to any encounters with extraterrestrial life… which may well treat us the way my ancestors treated the Seneca and the Delaware.
In the people of Krikkit, Adams boils down this bug in the human brain to a society that had no visible stars in its sky, and thus had no idea that the universe existed, until a spaceship crashed onto their planet, and they build a copy of it to investigate where it came from.
The darkness of the cloud buffeted at the ship. Inside was the silence of history. Their historic mission was to find out if there was anything or anywhere on the other side of the sky, from which the wrecked spaceship could have come, another world maybe, strange and incomprehensible though this thought was to the enclosed minds of those who had lived beneath the sky of Krikkit.
History was gathering itself to deliver another blow.
Still the darkness thrummed at them, the blank enclosing darkness. It seemed closer and closer, thicker and thicker, heavier and heavier. And suddenly it was gone.
They flew out of the cloud.
They saw the staggering jewels of the night in their infinite dust and their minds sang with fear.
For a while they flew on, motionless against the starry sweep of the Galaxy, itself motionless against the infinite sweep of the Universe. And then they turned around.
‘It’ll have to go,’ the men of Krikkit said as they headed back for home.
On the way back they sang a number of tuneful and reflective songs on the subjects of peace, justice, morality, culture, sport, family life and the obliteration of all other life forms.
If there’s one central theme of the Hitchhiker books it’s that. That more knowledge doesn’t necessarily lead to better outcomes, that most people inhabit tiny worlds of their own creation and cannot cope with the knowledge of what lies outside of those tiny worlds, and that, in the end, people are so powerless to do anything about the absurd and interconnected vicissitudes of the universe that the only chance of happiness is to find someplace small and focus on the little pleasures of right now, always knowing that our world is impossibly tiny and fragile.
The first time I read this book, I wouldn’t have agreed with that idea, though I loved the book from the first time I read it. But the older I get, and the more I see of the world and of human behavior, the more I think that’s just about right.
The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking
Faber & Faber
I read this book twice. I like to do that, with choices for the book club, when I can make the time. I read it once, pretty quickly, at the beginning of the month, when I first bought it. Then I read it again, a bit more slowly and thoughtfully, in the week before the book club meeting.
I don’t think there has been a book that everyone else seemed to be reading and talking about and taking seriously that offended me as deeply as The Secret offended me. I didn’t even read The Secret, but I don’t think I needed to read it to be profoundly angry about its central principle- that a person can manifest any good thing into her life by thinking about it in the right way. The truth is that life isn’t always good. Sometimes, life is randomly shitty. A lot of the things that make life randomly shitty are entirely out of our control.
Yes, there are many ways in which I can make life better though my own power. I can choose to eat reasonably and exercise regularly, which does wonders for my mood and my level of resilience. I can choose to be kind to the people I encounter. I can break my work up into small, manageable chunks. I can pet the cat. There are many things I can do that make my life better.
But there are also a lot of things that are out of my control, and wishing won’t change them. Eating reasonably and exercising regularly won’t keep me from getting cancer, or a brain tumor – hell, they won’t even reliably keep me from getting a cold. I can do my job as simply and competently as possible, but that won’t guarantee that I won’t be laid off when the budget at my school gets cut. Like most people, I’m just a few months of work away from really abject poverty.
The Secret is offensive because it implies its opposite. If people can get all they ever dreamed of by manifesting it through their thoughts, then that means that people who fail to get the things they dreamed of are to blame, for not manifesting their thoughts correctly. It’s the kind of thinking that allows certain people who think of themselves as decent and good to blame poor people for their poverty – after all, if they had done the right things, they wouldn’t be poor. It’s a way of thinking that has nothing to do with reality and everything to do with convincing oneself that you have the power to keep really terrible things from happening to you.
Which is all well and good as long as nothing really bad is happening to you, and for many middle-class Americans, that’s generally true. But then when something really bad does happen, they are left without any inner resources with which to cope.
Burkeman is exploring some of the other philosophies with which people live their lives, philosophies which accept that life can be really crappy sometimes, and work with that. He talks to people who have developed strategies for living with life’s uncertainty and pain, for living with the possibility of disaster and the certainty of death, and he explores the idea that giving up on the pursuit of happiness and just getting shit done can, ultimately, make a person happier.
I have a lot of sympathy with that point of view. And I always enjoy reading books by people who think the same things I think. Doesn’t everyone?
I’m not sure that this book, in itself, is going to change anyone’s life, though. It skims the surface of several different schools of thought, without, in my opinion, giving enough depth to really adopt one of the philosophies it describes in a meaningful way. It might make a good starting point, but it would be a much better starting point if it ended with a good list of recommended reading about the schools of thought it explores. William Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy covered some of the same territory, but did it in a way that was much more intentional- it’s a book that is really intended to help a person learn how to develop a useful philosophy and make it work in practical ways. If you ask me, after you read The Antidote, if you find yourself saying, ‘That was a good idea, but I’m not sure what to do with it,’ you should read Irvine’s book next.
Maybe I’ll bring A Guide to the Good Life with me to book club, as an illustration when I say that. Or maybe I’ll just sit in a back corner and listen quietly while other people talk. I always seem to talk either too much or not at all. 39 years old, and I’m still trying to learn how to talk just enough. Oh, well. At least I don’t have a brain tumor today.
I know that it seems like teaching middle school for a large, urban school district is a utopian dream job, and that people like me would never get stressed or anxious or overwhelmed. And yes, it is usually exactly the sort of fantasy that you might see on… wait. Does anyone ever make movies about my job? It’s always high schools that are the subject of inspiring movies. Middle school children are not glamorous. Or edgy. Or, to be honest, photogenic. Poor little awkward souls.
So every once in a while- not often, mind you, not more than once or twice or at most three times in a really bad year- I allow myself to take a sick day even though (please don’t be too shocked) I am not really sick at all. No, not even a little bit.
I took one such day, a little while ago. I woke up with waves of despair washing over me, and decided that I would rather go see Wreck-it Ralph and eat a hot dog and have a nice, gratuitously long wander through the Barnes and Noble than go to work.
There, you’re shocked, aren’t you? I knew you would be. No other teacher has ever done such a thing. I’m probably a terrible person, and the fact that I feel no guilt whatsoever just lends credence to the assumption that I have no moral sense at all and am probably a psychopath.
I was a little short of funds, but still I had the idea in mind that I just might splurge my last $40 on the new two-book collection of Ursula LeGuin short fiction that just came out. Because I’ll read just about anything Small Beer puts in front of me. I trust Gavin Grant more than I trust my own father.
On my meander through the bookstore, however, I came upon a box set of the Parasol Protectorate novels, and bought that instead. Call it a mad, random whim. I’m allowed to have mad, random whims, even if I am an occasionally less than fully gruntled public school teacher.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve been slowly reading and enjoying these five paperbacks. I had a lot of fun reading them, too. My favorite thing, I think, is that the author seems to have had just as much fun writing them. There’s a lot of joy in these books. They’re funny. Not quite the Jane Austen level of wit promised by the covers, but then, there’s a lot more naked werewolves than I’ve ever noticed in Austen, so it’s fine. They’re plenty funny enough for me.
I can’t help feeling like Carriger made a big long list of everything she loves, and then put it all into this series. Which for a less skilled writer would make for a deeply irritating book, and I speak as a woman who has often been irritated by urban fantasy novels.
- queen victoria
- gay best friend
- absurd hats
- a nefarious secret society
- the sign of the octopus
- the importance of good accessories
- mechanical zombie porcupines? sure, why the hell not? put ‘em in!
It all makes for a really good time, especially because the humor is funny, the sex is sexy, and the suspense is suspenseful. I ordered the LeGuin books with my next paycheck, and they’re presumably winging their way toward me even as I blog, but in the meantime, I think I was in need of a nice uncomplicated good time, and for that, I made totally the right choice.
Maybe the next time I need a day off, I’ll just make a pot of tea, wrap myself in a warm blanket, and re-read several of these.
Nine Princes in Amber
Well, now I’ve read a book by Roger Zelazny. I was reluctant to read it, because, from the cover, it looked like a ridiculous cliche. I gave it a try, and… I’m not sure what I think yet.
It wasn’t as bad as it looked, I’ll say that for sure. There were bits of it I quite liked.
I like libraries. It makes me feel comfortable and secure to have walls of words, beautiful and wise, all around me. I always feel better when I can see that there is something to hold back the shadows.
I liked that. A person who can write that has me on his side.
I was thrown off by the weird blend of 1970s contemporary and high fantasy that was Corwin’s way of talking and interior monologuing. But I liked the idea of Amber, and the potential involved in a universe in which any possible universe exists and can be visited by the characters. I wonder if this series will explore that more? I’d be on board for that. I didn’t make it too far into the Riverworld series when I was a teenager but this idea reminds me of that, and makes me suddenly want to go back and read more of those books.
I think I need to get some more context regarding this writer, and why so many people consider him so important. In the meantime, I’m up for reading the second book in this series. I’ve just put it on hold at the library.
I had heard about Osama when it came out, but my public library didn’t have a copy of it, and I forgot about its existence until it won the World Fantasy Award, at which point I felt a certain obligation to give it a try.
The reviews I read talked about how complex, difficult, and inaccessible it was, so I braced myself for that. They all said that it was hard to engage with, and very confusing, but ultimately worth the effort. Well, I’m not afraid of a challenging, dense novel. I liked Ulysses and The Drowning Girl.
This was, incidentally, the first book I got with my brand-spanking-new Audible subscription, which I think I’m going to like having. Having a good book on the iPod really makes rolling out of bed and going to the gym more appealing.
Here’s the thing, though- I didn’t find it difficult at all. I couldn’t work out what had been so challenging and inaccessible to the other people who read it.
It’s a noir-style hard-boiled detective story. The main character, Joe, is a private detective so classic that he’s barely a character at all. He is hired by a mysterious woman to find a writer named Mike Longshot, who writes a series of torrid men’s adventures called “Osama Bin Laden: Vigilante.”
It’s an alternate universe story, about a world where there isn’t any terrorism at all, a world in which the whole history that led to Islamist terrorism never happened, and is known only as a trashy and implausible fiction.
It’s a parallel-worlds story, in which the world I live in and the world Joe lives in just barely connect with one another. In order to find Mike Longshot, Joe is, I assumed from a very early chapter, going to have to uncover the truth about his universe and ours, and how they connect.
Okay, yes, I hadn’t seen these three classic story types all rolled into one novel before, but it all seemed very reasonable to me, and they worked together perfectly smoothly.
And then I got to the ending, and realized that there had been a fourth thing going on in this book, that I had not understood at all.
I closed the book (metaphorically, since it was an audiobook. In fact, I turned off the iPod) and shrugged. ‘That was a pretty good book,’ I said, ‘and I enjoyed it. But I don’t quite get why everyone has been talking about it so much, or why it won the big award. It isn’t that much better than any other good book.’
That was a few days ago. But the ending of the book keeps coming back to me. I keep rolling it over in my head, and it keeps becoming more important to me. I’ll be driving to work, listening to something else entirely, and suddenly I’m reflecting on the conclusion of Osama and what it means, for Joe and for me.
And I guess that’s what a great book does, isn’t it? Sticks with you, and illuminates your experiences? So maybe this is a great book after all.
I think I need to read it again.
Small Beer Press
Whenever I read one of Elizabeth Hand’s books for the second time, I love it. I never quite wrap my head around them the first time, somehow. There’s just too much going on to take it all in at once. Her work is some of the best there is, and it is one of the delights of it for me, that it unfolds itself to me over time.
I’ve read “The Maiden Flight of McAuley’s Bellerophon” before, when it was nominated for the Hugo award, so this was my second reading of it, and so I was ready to begin to love it. I finally started to see the central image, of the end of the flight of the bizarre aircraft, in my mind, and that image linked to other things in my mind – the retro-modern appeal of the steampunk aesthetic, the hope that there’s more in the world than what we see, the lone visionary (crank?) fighting for an idea… Now that I’ve read it twice, I’m ready to start reading it.
There’s a story in this collection that I actually loved on first reading, which is a new experience for me with Elizabeth Hand. “Winter’s Wife,” about a self-sufficient man in rural Maine who brings home an Icelandic wife who is very strange, and more than she seems,cold and fierce and protective of those she… loves? I’m not sure yet. Ask me again after the second reading, or the third. But in the meantime, this story made me want to move to Maine, or possibly to Iceland.
Now that I’ve read this, I’ll let it rest on the shelf for a while. Then I’ll go back to it, and read it again, because I trust Elizabeth Hand, and I know that there are stories in here that didn’t resonate for me today, that will open for me another time, and I know that there are stories that did resonate for me today, that have more in them than I realize. It’s that kind of book.
Library of America
I read The Call of the Wild as a kid, in one of those young readers’ retellings, and I vaguely remember liking it but not loving it. And my students read “The King of Mazy May” when I get that far in their reading book, which isn’t every year. But I never thought that much about Jack London until this month.
I’ve been reading this collection slowly, and I was astonished to discover that London’s writing style is exactly to my taste, and very very good. It’s very crisp and precise and focused, and he seems at all times in complete control of every word. Jack London is a wonderful writer. Did everyone know that but me? Why didn’t you all mention it? Is there any other important information you’re keeping from me?
Now I’m haunted by the short story “The Apostate,” which I’m certain was about the abuses of child labor, but which I responded to as a cry against work in general. I, too, sometimes feel so dulled by work that I’ve forgotten how to enjoy the pleasures of my nonwork hours.
And even The Call of the Wild, which I thought of as a kids’ book, is stuck in my head now.