The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

Sometimes the impulse to fully represent how much a book means to you is almost enough to render you speechless. I feel this way about Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, a novel that packs such potency that it still catches me unaware sometimes. Most admirers highlight the novel’s cerebral heft–it is, for my money, one of the most sophisticated thought experiments that touch on everything from extraterrestrial urban planning to theology, anthropology, and high-level geopolitics. But those kinds of reviews fail describe how well Le Guin wields wistful delicacy when she wants to, how unerringly she locates the beating human heart of this forbidding story.

The novel is told through a series of reports by an envoy named Genly Ai. He is nominally a human being (he refers to himself as Terran), but he comes from an advanced society called Ekumen that fosters intergalactic alliances and commerce among various alien entities. Genly arrives in Gethen, an ice-bound planet that can be considered a sort of backwater, in an attempt to persuade its inhabitants to join the alliance of planets. Continue reading

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Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You by Peter Cameron

(This review spoils a significant subplot in the story, so proceed with caution.)

Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You is a beautiful title in search of a novel. Peter Cameron uses it as the jumping off point to tell the coming of age of an eighteen-year old named James Sveck.

The first few pages quickly illustrate James’s contrary and cynical nature, as well as his increasing alienation from his family and his privileged upbringing. He has acted out enough to warrant compulsory meetings with a psychiatrist, whom he stonewalls at every opportunity. He spends the last of his summer vacation before college working part-time at his mom’s art gallery. Slated to go to Brown University, he instead looks obsessively at real estate in the Midwest and plots his escape, all the while disdaining everybody in New York City, except for his grandmother and one of his mother’s employees.

I have a very contentious relationship with stories about the children of privileged New York families acting like utter snots. I like them in their trashiest incarnations, as illustrated by the distressing number of aggregate hours I’ve spent watching Gossip Girl. I know more gossipy information about Anderson Cooper (who is not a snot) and his Vanderbilt relatives (who were) than is frankly healthy. On a less morally dubious note, I also love Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums.

Despite all that, however, I have found that the novels I’ve read so far that feature sophisticated yet brittle families leave me cold. Catcher in the Rye, The Great Gatsby, The Nanny Diaries. I don’t find the muted oppressiveness compelling, and neither do I muster much sympathy for the often unlikeable audience surrogate railing against the machine. I like drama that surround fictional royalty with much stricter sense of decorum and repression, but I don’t know, it just doesn’t tickle me in this particular setting. Continue reading

Bossypants by Tina Fey

If you are a liker of comedy, you’d be hard pressed to find reasons to justify why Tina Fey isn’t that big of a deal. She and Amy Poehler loomed large for an entire era of SNL, especially in Fey’s role as head writer for nine years. Their generation of improv performers cornered valuable TV and movie real estate that used to be reserved only for standup comedians. She also wrote the screenplay of the totemic film Mean Girls, basically informing the vocabulary of every human being in possession of a Tumblr account.

Her schtick as an often hapless, often harried nerd thrust into the spotlight is belied by the ferocious intellect, drive and savvy that Bossypants merely hints at. I’m slightly apprehensive that my post about her 2011 memoir will speak more of her place in culture than the actual content of the book. But Fey herself also deftly anticipates that readers coming into Bossypants are most likely aware of celebrity, and may already have their opinions of her hardened beyond modification. Continue reading

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt

Among the major literary genres, the Western probably makes me the most wary. Not only have I read precious few books within it, but I am also unfamiliar with other iterations, whether on TV or in the movies. (Except for Justified. Is that a Western?) John Wayne for me is nothing but a name that personifies the cookie-cutter Hollywood Hero. My only way in is country music and… that’s about it.

It’s also a genre that seems so heavily nostalgic for the geographical and historical specifics of the United States to the point that it lionizes episodes of systematic institutional violence such as Manifest Destiny, the uprooting and genocide of Native Americans, and so on. So I guess it’s appropriately ironic that my first foray into the Western is a novel written by a Canadian writer. (Though to be fair, he is a current resident of Oregon according to Wikipedia.)

The premise of Patrick deWitt’s Booker-nominated novel The Sisters Brothers is as simple as it is thrilling: notorious siblings Eli and Charlie Sisters are hired by an Oregon bigwig called the Commodore to travel to California and kill a man. What transpires is an archetypal roadtrip story, except the protagonists are on horseback. Continue reading

The Rule of Four by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason

Let’s get something out of the way: The Rule of Four by Justin Thomason and Ian Caldwell is pretty much a paint-by-numbers affair as far as intellectual thrillers are concerned. There is, of course, an extremely obscure historical text called the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili that apparently has an arcane code within it, revealing an earth-shaking truth that may rewrite history. There is an obsessive soul, a senior in Princeton named Paul, who becomes so consumed by the mystery that he pushes away the people who love him in his pursuit of it. There is a narrator named Tom who has already watched is his father be consumed by the Hypnerotomachia until his death and is now watching helplessly as the same thing happens to his best friend.

There are also deaths, because people who write their thesis on 15th Century Italian manuscripts live life on the edge.

But for some reason, reading this book pushed so many pleasure centers in my brain in ways that made me forgive the banal writing and even the weird tonal shifts that it takes. When the story is not straining to be suspenseful or shocking, I actually found it kind of comforting. The hermetic setting of the Princeton campus may also have contributed to that, because it evoked associations of Dead Poets’ Society, The Gilmore Girls, and other pop culture things about idyllic schools and youth.

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House of Leaves #4 – “Its roots must hold the sky.”

(I’m writing more than a month after I’ve finished reading the book, a month after having an illuminating face-to-face discussion with my reading buddies Monique and Angus. Does that mean I’ve fully processed it and teased out its true meaning? Hell no.)

This is the kind of book that challenges you to love it. And by that I don’t simply refer to the ornery nature of its text. House of Leaves throws so many negative things your way that makes you want to qualify how much you like it–not only the brash postmodernist posturing, but also its violence, its claustrophobic dive into several unquiet minds. But it also works doubly hard to win you back over to its side, reaching for honest sentiment and often enough grasping it.

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The Poisoner’s Handbook by Deborah Blum

I’ve always been fascinated by crime at the beginning of the 20th Century. It was a nebulous time when all the trappings of what we now consider standard police work barely existed. Cities were industrializing at a rapid pace even as local governments struggled to keep up. Jack the Ripper‘s reign of terror over London, for example, only occurred around ten years before the new century began, and investigators then had to pretty much spontaneously invent psychological profiling, crime scene investigation, forensic handwriting analysis, and other fields of criminology. (Warnings for graphic photos and descriptions of dead bodies in those links.)

Deborah Blum’s The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York is a brisk tour of this rough historical period. It also serves as a chronicle of a peculiar arms race between killers looking for the most ingenious methods of offing someone and the forensic investigators determined to catch them. Representing the forces of law and order are two scientists, the medical examiner Charles Norris and toxicologist Alexander Gettler of the New York Police Department. Blum expertly paints the frustrating morass of bureaucracy, corruption, and ignorance that technicians like them had to endure in order to establish a more scientific and reliable protocol for catching poisoners. Continue reading