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

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 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

Roots by Alex Haley

Roots is (supposedly) a combination of memoir, genealogy, and historical fiction focusing on the enslaved African ancestor of black American author Alex Haley. While acknowledging the significance of this unprecedented, popular, and culturally important work, I must say I think it fails as a work of fiction.

I expected the book to be more like other historical epics I’ve read. Such works contain seeds of truth and the fruits of long hours of research, but are ultimately stories crafted to entertain, so they have a classic, recognizable rising-falling structure, or many such structures strung together or nested one inside the other.

While reading Roots, I kept trying to sniff out plot points, only slowly realizing that Roots is just a straightforward book chronicling people’s lives. People’s lives don’t have plots, unless you graft them on after the fact, and that’s not what Haley chose to do. You could say he “fictionalized” the story of Kunta Kinte and his descendants, but the detail that he added was documentary rather than dramatic in style. From a structural standpoint, Haley’s massive work is little more than an 888-page list of who begat whom.

Sadly, if the accusations against Haley are true, the work also fails as non-fiction; the story may very well be less factual than he claimed.

See below for a summary, what stood out, and my thoughts on the authenticity of the novel.

Continue reading Roots by Alex Haley

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

Who doesn’t love a good Cinderella story like Jane Eyre?

I despise spineless, aimless characters like Catcher in the Rye‘s Holden Caufield; Jane Eyre is exactly the opposite. She’s stubborn, she’s principled, and in the end she gets what she wants because she’s worked hard and made the right decisions. Unlike many heroines, she’s not particularly beautiful or smart; what she has is honesty and a strong sense of justice.

The setting and many descriptive details make the book moody and atmospherically (though not thematically) dark; it’s a gothic novel complete with mysterious rooms, storms, eerie sounds and the like.

Jane Eyre is discussed throughout The Weekend Novelist Re-writes the Novel, which points out that the book has an uncommonly large number of antagonists, which means it has an uncommonly large number of subplots. The book’s complexity contributes greatly to its lasting appeal.

When and Why I Read Jane Eyre

This book was chosen by Rachel of the Hungry Hundred Book Club for May 2017. I read it in 2011 but I don’t mind reading it again.

Genre: fiction (English literature)
Date started / date finished:  06-May-17 to 15-May-17
Length: 467 pages
ISBN: Project Gutenberg 1260
Originally published in: 1897
Gutenberg link: Jane Eyre

The Story of the Stone aka The Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xueqin and Gao E

Rachel of the Hungry Hundred Book Club selected this mammoth Chinese classic for discussion at the end of January 2018. I bought the five-volume Penguin paperback edition and the 64-page illustrated version published by Real Reads. Below are the results of my research into the different available English translations.

See also: Buying books in Singapore

Continue reading The Story of the Stone aka The Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xueqin and Gao E

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

The Catcher in the Rye was not a book I enjoyed. In general, I don’t like spineless characters, and I don’t like unreliable narrators, and Holden Caufield is both!

If your idea of great fiction is a story that successfully produces a powerful emotional reaction, then okay, I agree that Salinger’s book is great. It made me feel absolutely awful. After reading it, I felt I needed to go look at pictures of kittens or something to wash it out of my head. Blech.

More details about the book with SPOILERS below.

Continue reading The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

Dangerous Liaisons by Choderlos de Laclos

Dangerous Liaisons is a deeply disturbing book.

I think what bothers me most is the fact that sincere expressions of supposedly private emotions are betrayed to third parties, i.e., that innocent people are being made fools of and don’t even know it. It is horrible to suspect that others are laughing at us; it is even more horrible to find out that we have indeed been laughed at, and that, further, we deserved it, if only because we were naive.

Do you think you can evade vicarious injury by identifying with the clever if cruel miscreants rather their victims? Then you will be pained when the novel fails to conclude as happily for them as they seem to assume it will. No one gets away unscathed!

The ambiguous stance of the book allows readers multiple interpretations. One lesson you could say the book teaches is never to give anyone the benefit of the doubt, though perhaps it’s simply saying that no matter how suspicious you try to be, your trust will always be misplaced. A more benign lesson would be that the ridiculous French loan-word ‘liaison’ has two i’s in it—if I never type the word again, it will be too soon.

Meanwhile, I offer you a presumably accidental pun on the word “affair” in the form of a questionably worded Quizno’s ad.

When and Why I Read Dangerous Liaisons

This work was chosen as the Hungry Hundred Book Club book for February 2017.

Genre: fiction (French literature)
Date started / date finished:  28-Jan-17 to 06-Feb-17
Length: 409 pages
ISBN: 9780140449570 (paperback)
Originally published in: 1782
Amazon link: Dangerous Liaisons

Middlemarch by George Eliot

When I read Middlemarch in 2015, I was surprised when the focus shifted away from the character I thought was the protagonist. In fact, the book has an ensemble cast whose stories are woven together by a variety of relationships all contained within the same geographical area, the town of Middlemarch. Hence the title.

One of the Hungry Hundred Book Club members said the book was about “knowing the other”, though obviously not in the science-fiction sense of knowing aliens from other planets. I very much agree. The plot relies on characters who make assumptions and project their own worldviews on others unknowingly, then find, having hurt others or themselves, that they were mistaken.

The characters are not to be blamed for not understanding each other perfectly to begin with (such problems are perennial human ones), but we can certainly judge them for the actions they take and the attitudes they adopt when they realize they are wrong.

My evaluations of some of the characters below as well as information on when and why I read the book.

Continue reading Middlemarch by George Eliot