The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

What if, instead of men and women, people were all just, you know, people? That’s the idea Ursula K. Le Guin explores in The Left Hand of Darkness. The people living on the bitter-cold planet Gethen (aka Winter) can only procreate when they are “in heat”, and during such periods may become physiologically either male or female. When not in heat or pregnant, they are neither male nor female (though they are referred to as “he” throughout the book because English lacks a neutral third-person singular pronoun).

This award-winning novel challenges us to think about genders, gender roles, sexuality, and their impact on culture, but much of the plot is not actually person-against-person or even person-against-society, it’s person-against-nature. The harsh climate has shaped the Gethens, culturally and perhaps biologically as well…

Genly Ai has been sent on a solo mission to Gethen to extend the locals an invitation to join the Ekumen, a kind of intergalactic knowledge-sharing alliance built primarily on technology for simultaneous communication (rather than, say, faster-than-light travel). Genly is male in the commonly understood sense, and struggles against the tendency to assign gender to the Gethens. He also struggles with the cold. Will he complete his mission? Will he even survive the political intrigues and the climate? Who can he trust? He is terrifyingly alone.

I was surprised at the proportion of the book that consisted of a trek across an icy wasteland. I felt I’d been lifted out of the sci-fi universe Le Guin had so painstakingly created and plunged back into the dangerous world of high-altitude mountaineering, which I read about nearly 20 years ago in The Climb and Into Thin Air after watching the IMAX film about the 1996 Everest disaster. I was somewhat reminded of the depressing Jack London short story To Build a Fire, a classic man vs. nature struggle that I read in a literature anthology just last year but that I remember having to read in some long-ago English class.

When and Why I Read The Left Hand of Darkness

This book was chosen by Rachel of the Hungry Hundred Book Club for November 2017. Previously, I read it in 2001.

Genre: fiction (science-fiction)
Date started / date finished:  24-Oct-17 to 26-Oct-17
Length: 304 pages
ISBN: 0044147805
Originally published in: 1969/1976
Amazon link: The Left Hand of Darkness

English Is Not Easy by Luci Gutierrez

If you are looking for an illustrated, sexually explicit, New York–themed guide to learning English as a second language, look no further than English Is Not Easy.

The pages include generous amounts of whitespace, the lettering is varied and attractive, and the examples and red-and-black illustrations are… memorable.

When and Why I Read English Is Not Easy

This book was a gift.

Genre: non-fiction (language/reference)
Date started / date finished:  29-Aug-17 to 30-Aug-17
Length: 335 pages
ISBN: 9788494140945
Originally published in: 2013/2017
Amazon link: English Is Not Easy

Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy

Though the work could easily be seen as depressing, it didn’t frustrate me because the author doesn’t make readers stand by and watch as oblivious characters miscommunicate, misunderstand, lie, and betray their dreams time and time again. To be sure, the characters make all sorts of mistakes, but they also think about, talk about, and learn from them, which seems like a reasonable thing to expect characters (and people) to do.

If ultimately the characters fail, it is not because they kept doing the same thing again and again. The novel is also not a story of a series of lessons learned over the course of a wandering life, each new theory overthrowing the last, as in the novel Siddhartha, which I was momentarily worried Jude the Obscure would resemble. Jude moves from place to place, but the story doesn’t start over every time he does; he keeps running into the same people and returning to the same places.

I enjoyed reading the book because there’s no substitute for a good old 19th-century novel when it comes to the variety and precision of words used (epicene, suasion, quondam, bifurcation, adventitious, ashlaring, lambent).

The content of the novel was (and remains) controversial for its treatment of sensitive social themes (social class class, education, marriage, and religion). Jude says, “Our ideas were fifty years too soon to be any good to us”, but he might as well have said a hundred and fifty.

When and why I read Jude the Obscure

This book was chosen by Rachel of the Hungry Hundred Book Club for September 2017.

Genre: fiction (literature & classics)
Date started / date finished: 20-Aug-17 to 29-Aug-17
Length: 323 pages
Originally published in: 1895
Amazon link: Jude the Obscure
Gutenberg link: Jude the Obscure 

Related books

Last year I read the Mayor of Casterbridge. In 1999 I read Far from the Madding Crowd. I still haven’t read the other two famous ones.

Also related?

The Pagemaster by Jordan Horowitz

Not having seen the movie recently, I can’t say whether, as an adult, I think the novelization is better or worse than the movie itself.

The Pagemaster—that is, both the book and the movie whose story it recapitulates—has a beginning, a series of events, and an ending, but it’s too slight to really feel like a proper narrative. Yes, the main character learns a lesson in the course of the adventure, but the beginning is so unsubtle that you already know exactly what the ending is going to be like. Watching the character get there is just tedious because he has no goal other than getting home safely; he only learns his lesson because the plot requires him to.

Maybe I’d be nostalgic for the story if I’d seen the movie as a kid, when the lack of subtlety would perhaps not have bothered me, and the whole adventure would perhaps have seemed more exciting.

As it is, I am willing to forgive much because the movie glorifies reading, but there are other movies that do that better! The one that comes to mind is The Neverending Story, in which a frightened boy gets himself into a magic adventure by means of a book. The characters and their story are much more dramatic, much more memorable.

The movie The Pagemaster is like The Phantom Tollbooth in that a boy who desperately needs fixing goes on a magical adventure as a cartoon and then returns, fixed, to the real world. It is unlike the Phantom Tollbooth in that it lacks any kind of charm.

You see a pattern, right? The Phantom Tollbooth and the Neverending Story were both successful novels before they were screenplays. The movie tie-in book of The Pagemaster is not a novel, it’s a novelization. I guess I’m disappointed, but not surprised.

When and Why I Read The Pagemaster

Sometimes I buy movie-tie-in books for movies I have.

Genre: fiction (fantasy)
Date started / date finished:  25-Aug-17 to 26-Aug-17
Length: 75 pages
ISBN: 0590202448
Originally published in: 1994
Amazon link: The Pagemaster

The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

The Leopard is the Gone with Wind of Sicily in that it documents the melancholy and ruinous effects on one character of drastic, unstoppable political and cultural changes in the surrounding area, changes that destroy the leisurely life of the landed aristocracy by both war and commerce.

I found the general sweep of the novel hard to appreciate because the author doesn’t describe or explain the historical context so much as suggest it. I did enjoy the style of writing, and greatly appreciated the wry humor, especially a sequence related to the priest Father Pirrone (see below).

I found these analyses useful:

Shmoop: The Leopard
Schmoop notes include plot summary, character descriptions, and explanations of themes, symbols, etc.

New York Times: Lampedusa’s The Leopard, fifty years on
The article notes that some have interpreted the novel as a defense of the aristocracy while others have seen it as a critique of the aristocracy.

See below for what stood out, as well as when and why I read the book.

Continue reading The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

The Importance of Living by Lin Yutang

The Importance of Living is a strange mix of East and West, good advice and bad. If nothing else, the book prompts readers to examine their priorities. YOLO.

When and Why I Read The Importance of Living

This book was recently given and recommended to me by a Chinese neighbor.

Genre: non-fiction (philosophy, self-improvement)
Date started / date finished:  29-Jun-17 to 14-Aug-17
Length: 449 pages
ISBN: 9780688163525
Originally published in: 1937
Amazon link: The Importance of Living

The Complete Plain Words (2nd edition) by Ernest Gowers

Reading this British book published in 1978 (a revised version of the 1948 original) was like going on an archaeological expedition in a foreign country. The English recommended by the author differs from my own for reasons of both time and place.

In some passages, the author of The Complete Plain Words speaks of the changes in the language that will inevitably take place in the decades to come; it’s almost as if he’s conversing directly with me, forty years in his future, at the same time that he’s conversing with his predecessor, thirty years in his past.

Our national vocabulary is a democratic institution, and what is generally accepted will ultimately be correct. I have no doubt that if anyone should read this book in fifty years’ time he would find current objections to the use of certain words in certain senses as curious as we now find Swift’s denunciation of ‘mob’. (53–54)

See below for what I learned, what stood out, and what I heartily agree with, as well as when and why I read the book.

Continue reading The Complete Plain Words (2nd edition) by Ernest Gowers

The Art of War by Sun Tzu

I’d bet far more people have heard of this influential Chinese classic than have read it.

The military strategist to whom The Art of War is attributed is known in English as “Sun Tzu”, which I’m guessing most people pronounce like “sun zoo”, but which is actually supposed to be something more like “soon dzuh”. (The pinyin is Sun Zi, and the characters are 孙子.)

I’m a poor historian, so it’s hard for me to judge the impact of Sun Tzu’s text either on the battles of his own time or on those fought in the centuries since then. Its impact on the world of contemporary English-language publishing, however, is readily apparent thanks to the proliferation of books that bear titles such as The Art of War for ExecutivesThe Art of War for Small Business, and even The Art of War for Dating. Surely the work that inspired all these copycats is worth a look.

The edition I read is based on the 1910 translation by Lionel Giles, and contains his notes inserted directly in the text. The notes explain or expand on the advice in more detail or give examples from world history of the situations described, showing how the advice applies in specific instances.

Hannibal defeated the Romans because breakfast.

I found the translation suitably dignified but modern enough to sound sensible. The version I read (ISBN 9781444727364, 102 pages) was edited and has a foreword by James Clavell, author of Shogun and a series of other long, popular novels set in Asia.

Here are some links to free versions of The Art of War at gutenberg.org:

Click to read my post on The Art of War over at Asian Books Blog to find out what you need to know to decide whether you should bother, or how to talk about it even if you never do!

Meanwhile, China, realising that sometimes cultural products are famous for being famous, has attempted to capitalise on The Art of War by using its fame as a lure for tourists… and to buttress its image as a cooperative world power. It’s worth a try, I guess.

When and Why I Read The Art of War

Re-reading this classic for Asian Books Blog.

Genre: non-fiction (Chinese history, military strategy)
Date started / date finished:  03-Jul-17 to 14-Jul-17

The Bar Code Trilogy by Suzanne Weyn

There are some interesting dystopian sci-fi ideas in this trilogy. They sort of trail off into a kind of Childhood’s End–kind of human psychic evolution mysticism, though, which I think is a pity.

In the near future, albeit one that seems to lack smartphones, a giant corporation allied with government connections all over the world is starting to require adults to be tattooed with identifying bar codes that can be connected to bank accounts and medical records—for convenience, obviously. Nothing ominous about it! Right?

Except there is. The bar code seems to be the cause of personal disasters ranging from job loss and bankruptcy to madness and suicide.

The teen protagonist Kayla smells a rat. Can she withstand the pressure to conform and get the tattoo (which she needs if she wants to go to art school)? Will she go mad if she gets one? Do the resistance groups, whether violent or not, have any chance of success defending citizens’ right to choice? What is the corporation hiding? Why is the corporation looking for her specifically, and who’s that girl on TV who looks just like Kayla? How can anyone survive off the grid in a world where everyone is ID’d and tracked? What if experiments with human genes stand in the way of amazing natural evolutionary breakthroughs in human potential?

Read the series and find out.

It reminds me vaguely of the movie Gattaca, the television series Orphan Black, and the YA novel series Bzrk.

It’s frustrating that the third book and the first two are different sizes. I had no idea when I ordered the third book on Amazon that it wouldn’t be a match. I thought, Oh, my mistake, I ordered the wrong one. However, as far as I can tell, there is no edition of the book in the mass-market paperback size.

When and Why I Read The Bar Code Trilogy

Re-reading this trilogy now that I finally have the third book. Annoyingly, the third paperback is a different size.

Genre: fiction (young-adult sci-fi)
Date started / date finished:  08-Jul-17 to 11-Jul-17
Length: 719 pages
ISBN: 0439395623, 9780439803854, 9780545425308
Originally published in: 2004, 2006, 2012
Amazon link: The Bar Code Tattoo