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Review | The Dispossessed by Ursula K Le Guin
I recently finished The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin. It’s the fifth in her Hainish Cycle, a series in which a variety of humans and human-variate species are slowly working to create a kind of federated utopia of planets. This particular installment was published in 1974 and received the Nebula, Hugo, and Locus awards for that year. My edition is the Olive Edition reprint and it sits at just under 400 pages.
The Dispossessed is a key work in the Hainish Cycle. It describes the creation of the Ansible, a communication device that allows planets to communicate with one another in real-time, despite how far apart they are. As a result, the story is key to a number of later stories in the same universe and shines light on some of the stories preceding it, like The Left Hand of Darkness, where the ansible is used.
The Dispossessed takes place in the Cetian system on two planets that are paired together, revolving around one another in a moon-planet like relationship. The main character, Shevek is an Odonian from Annares, a member of a religious-political faction that fled from Urres, the more lush of the two planets, over 150 years prior. Shevek and his fellow Odonians live in a kind of anarcho-Marxist utopia, where there is no central government, and people work communally to do what work needs to be done.
Shevek has spent his life dedicating himself to physics and the dilemma of sequentialism and simultaneity. In a sense, he’s dealing with the temporal aftermath of Einstein’s theory of relativity, and has come to find that his work is stunted on Annares; he’s frustrated by the inability to communicate freely with Urresians and, when the story begins, he is about to travel to Urres, the first Anaresti Odonian to do so since the Odonians left 150 years ago.
In contrast to Annares, Urres is a more typical capitalist and patriarchical society. While Shevek has gone there in search of a kind of eureka moment in his work and to disseminate it according to his ideal of freedom of information, he’s soon to realize that there’s more to the capitalist political system than he had thought and he becomes embroiled in political conflict.
In this story, Le Guin is examining a number of interesting political situations. While clearly critiquing patriarchal structures and the capitalist system, she is also examining anarchim, particularly anarcho-Marxism (the intersection of anarchism and Marxist communism) in the face of extreme resource scarcity. Both fans and critics have pointed to the story as an analogue for United States/ USSR relations in the Cold War. It brings under fire both systems and the use of proxy wars. While anarchism comes out in a more favorable light, Le Guin also points to the difficulty in having a society without government, including the continuation of power struggles that are maintained by natural social structures outside of government structures, the exercise of social pressure as a replacement for a criminal justice system, and the difficulty in providing for society’s needs without bureaucracy supplanting the anarchist system.
The story is interesting, and the plot is complex. Structurally, it’s split between two timelines: Shevek on Urres and Shevek growing up on Annares. This is part of what allows Le Guin to provide multiple criticisms throughout the story without them piling up on one another. It also provides a slow insight into Shevek’s “present” timeline with the problems that faced him before leaving for Urres. Le Guin takes a great deal of time describing the Odonian’s lives and structures. The reader is meant to explore Odonian society with and through Shevek’s growth, and through Shevek’s later observations contrasting Urresti (captialist) society with his own. This also allows the reader to slowly become accustomed to the strange speech patterns and behaviors of the Odonians, and to ease into criticisms of an anarcho-Marxist society that, especially during the Cold War, readers may have jumped to quickly and without examining their own assumptions.
Shevek is out-of-place with his fellow Odonians. Their society has come to a point of complacency with bureaucracy that constantly seems to frustrate him; he has no real outlet to overcome the social and political structures that seem to stifle his work; and he’s significantly more self-isolating than is considered acceptable by social norms. This makes him a very approachable character, not just to the reader, but also to the “true” anarchists and outliers of Anarresti society. Shevek finds himself constantly drawing people who want to challenge the system, as informal as it may be. I liked this about him. I think it was a very successful strategy for Le Guin and really helped the reader to digest what was happening. His fellows call him an “egoizer,” a “profiteer,” and a “traitor.” In many ways, Shevek is more likeable for the taunts and anger he draws.
The science is pretty handwave-y and the idea that a planet can be another planet’s moon was a little silly. But the science isn’t so much the point. Le Guin uses it as a way to talk about freedom of information and intellectual integrity. Shevek is constantly finding himself at odds with his own moral system, and that espoused by both Annares and the Urres. He’s constantly rejected by one and is being misused by the other. His search for a way out of the dilemma is interesting and leads him to take action that may otherwise be counter intuitive.
The side characters are interesting, particularly Shevek’s partner, Takver. Takver is a fish geneticist and the two are often far apart, fulfilling society’s needs where needed, but constantly drawn back to one another. Takver is left to deal with the consequences of Shevek’s studies, her own drive to create and understand, and the bindings of family life often by herself. While she doesn’t have her own point-of-view, she comes off as very strong and perhaps more resilient and accepting than others deserve. Le Guin at times seems like she wants to dive more into Takver’s story, but can’t, which made me as a reader feel frustrated at times.
Overall, I enjoyed the story and its contrasts and comparisons. I liked the characters and the way the story took twists and turns. It’s criticisms were appealing to me, and I liked having more background into the grown of the Hainish universe and its technology and people. I would suggest reading this as one of your first Le Guin books, though I am partial to Left Hand of Darkness, because I think the context it provides helps to make later books a bit more comprehensible.
Have you read The Dispossessed? What did you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments!
Review: Prayers for the Stolen by Jennifer Clement
Jennifer Clement’s Prayers for the Stolen is a story about women in poverty surviving in the mountains of Mexico. In a community where all the men have left for the U.S. and where cartels roam unchecked, the women proclaim loudly that “Thank god the baby was a boy.” Girls of the mountain are kidnapped at gunpoint and sold as slaves. It’s not a guarantee of safety; all the babies in the village are ‘boys.’
Prayers for the Stolen follows Ladydi (pronounced Lady Di), who recounts the stories of the girls in her village and that of her and her mother.
This book reminds me very much of Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street. The subject matter in both books is similar, though Clement’s story isn’t written in vignettes and focuses less on the sense of a community. Prayers for the Stolen is about women working hard against their circumstances and a young woman’s observation of her female companions.
Ladydi’s life with her mother is filled with betrayal and insecurity. Her mother is a drunk who resents everyone, quick to place blame on others and dedicated to the many grudges she holds. Ladydi’s mother is one of the more interesting characters of the novel. She’s got an uncertain sense of right and wrong, an unforgiving nature, and a temperament wont to change. Her mother is superstitious, believing in curses and that prayers for the things you want always go unanswered or worse. She is, however, utterly reliable. The portrayal is vivid and is often eerie.
Ladydi is more often an observer than a participant in her story. When she does appear to be engaged, it doesn’t last long. Her excursion outside the mountain in Acapulco is quick and mostly displays her own naivety. She’s betrayed by the sole male child of the village and the consequences are extremely serious. Surprisingly, she doesn’t seem to resent him. This would be off-putting and overly saintly if she didn’t have moments where she channels her mother’s anger and bitterness.
The story is slow at times and is more of a character study than anything else. The ending was a bit too sappy and convenient for my tastes.
I received a copy of Prayers for the Stolen for free in exchange for an honest review via bloggingforbooks.com
Review: Atlanta Burns by Chuck Wendig
Atlanta Burns, Chuck Wendig’s newest bind-up, follows a young heroine of the same name. Atlanta is surly, oddly compelled to do good, and very much haunted. Mostly she’s just getting through high school and trying not to give into sleep, where her past comes alive. When she’s awake and out of the house, she finds herself battling neo-Nazis, bullies, and corrupt police officials. Atlanta is Veronica Mars without the resources, friends, or safety of home.
Atlanta is finally adjusting to life after her shooting her mother’s ex-boyfriend. She’s making new friends and regaining a sense of belonging, tentative though it may be. Her new friends, Chris and Shane, geeks to say the least, have attached themselves to her, despite her reluctance. Then Chris dies, supposedly of suicide. But Atlanta isn’t so sure. She was never too far from a vigilante and, now, her self-control is going to be tested.
Atlanta herself is a decently complex character. She’s suffering from trauma, probably some PTSD and depression. She’s isolated. She will express frustration with others, and simultaneously long to be around people. She’s impulsive and has a serious sense of right and wrong.
However, I found myself to be frustrated with her. I wanted to see her have a moment or two where she looks at her behavior, sees her problems, and wants to be different, even if she doesn’t have the will or ability to change. I wanted her to have a self-reflective moment.
I also was a bit skeptical of her situation. After her assault, her mother’s behavior, and the nature of her self-defense, I was very surprised that Atlanta (1) didn’t have a state-presence in her life like a social worker, and (2) that there wasn’t any mandatory counseling. It just seemed a bit too unrealistic that there would be nothing, not even an incompetent of ineffective attempt at assistance for her.
She also shoots a lot of guns at people without really seeming to ever get into any trouble, and there are a lot of violent sociopaths living in her town, going to her school.
The side characters were interesting enough. There wasn’t a ton of development with them, but, by and large, they weren’t consistently present in the story. They’re all a bit gullible or unreasonably afraid of Atlanta. Her run-in with the police was violent, yes. People are scared she’ll do it again, but there were some pretty extenuating circumstances that led to her shooting a man. It seemed a bit unrealistic that everyone thinks she’ll do the same to them, also a bit too convenient. She needs leverage to keep the story moving, but I don’t know that the threat of her shooting people was really the way to go about giving it to her.
The story itself often feels episodic from one chapter to the next. Though there is an overarching plot and recurring characters, it doesn’t always seem to be very focused. It can be fun and fast-paced, but there are definitely times where it seems like the “main” plot has been abandoned or like there isn’t a lot of cohesion.
I received a copy of Atlanta Burns for free in exchange for an honest review via Netgalley.
Review: Where’d You Go, Bernadette?
I’ll admit it happily: I love audiobooks. I have frequent drives that are at least 4.5 hrs, one way, if there is no traffic. I normally take them out of the library (yay, libraries!) and enjoy. Radio is pretty spotty during the drive so audiobooks cannot be beaten. So, please note that I listened to Where’d You Go, Bernadette?
Where’d You Go, Bernadette? follows 8th grader B and her family. Her father, Elgin, is a super famous computer programmer and her mother, Bernadette, was a MacArthur Grant winning architect. B is super excited for a family trip to Antarctica, but her mother has been at the center of conflict at B’s school and her parents’ relationship is balanced precariously. Her mother has been treading water since the destruction of her most famous house and her father is seriously considering committing Bernadette. When Bernadette disappears mysteriously two days before Christmas, B decides she must discover the truth behind her mother’s disappearance.
The story has the potential to look in-depth at some pertinent issues: depression, mommy wars, difficulties in cultural assimilation, and relationship struggles and coping mechanisms. What’s really unfortunate is that Where’d You Go, Bernadette? skips over these issues in large part. Maria Semple creates a picture of Bernadette that is erratic, combative, and depressed. In the end, instead of tackling Bernadette’s mental state with constructive help, Semple chooses to chalk it up to Bernadette’s “need to create.” This is obviously something lacking in the way Semple portrays depression, which runs, often, much deeper and in a much more complex way than presented. I found it very unsatisfying.
I thought that the voices were appropriately distinct. Much of the story was done in various documents and emails that they characters wrote. The characters were presented distinctly from one another and I found them to be fairly satisfying in that manner. Their development varied, though it wasn’t necessarily inappropriate in the voices’ differentiations. Again, in this respect, I was at times disappointed in the way that Bernadette was portrayed. She didn’t grow or seem to develop as a character. Elgin, her husband, sometimes did. Mostly, the characters were static.
I gave this book a 3/5. It was enjoyable, but wore on me.
Review: The Little Green Book of Chairman Rhama by Brian Herbert
Unfortunately, I wasn’t pleased with Brian Herbert’s new release.
Short list of highlights:
-Poor character development
-Not enough background
Review: 2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas by Marie-Helene Bertino
It’s late at night and I’m sleepy (but also hungry?) so bear with me here.
2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas is the story of a little girl, Madeleine (10 years old two days from now), her caregivers, and a jazz club. Madeleine loves to sing. She loves it so much it burns her up inside. Her mother taught her how. But, Madeleine’s mother has passed away, her father has descended into addiction and depression, and Madeleine has been lashing out. She’s no longer allowed to sing at school assemblies or mass and on Christmas Eve Eve, the opportunity to do so is dangled in front of her face and then yanked away. Frustrated and tired of being picked on, Madeleine punches one of the boys at school and is sent home, expelled.
Across town, The Cat’s Pajamas, a once famous and successful jazz club is dilapidated and has been written up by the city. One more ordinance violation and they’re gone. Lorcas, the owner, isn’t really able to shoulder the responsibilities he knows he needs to face. His kid is talented, but wild. His friends are reliable, but creaky and not without their own set of morals. The police are now breathing down his back and there’s no way he’s going to be able to come up with the money to pay it.
It’s pretty fated.
This is Bertino’s second novel. It’s got a unique sense of style and a compelling format. The characters are interesting, though it’s more character than plot driven.
Madeleine is spunky and doesn’t really care what the adults in her life expect of her. She does as asked, but not without resistance and does so inconsistently. She’s pouty and mean to the other kids. Despite that, she was likeable. The only problem I had was that there were times when Madeleine’s behavior and personality were much more suited to an older child. She was flippant in a way that read less like a ten year old and more like a rebellious fourteen or fifteen year old.
I’ll admit, I sometimes wondered whether there was enough insight into Madeleine’s reactions to her father’s absence and abuse. Madeleine didn’t seem to have any anger, disappointment, or resentment towards him checking out after her mother died. It had really only been a year and Madeleine seems to disregard the change in many ways, with the exception of a few brief moments where her father is violent. It seemed strange to me that Bertino didn’t focus just a bit more on the effect that the change might have on Madeleine’s behavior.
Madeleine’s teacher Sarina was fun and her struggles with reading situations and to cope with what happened to Madeleine (expulsion) over what Sarina believes to be a minor infraction was interesting to watch. I enjoyed watching her bop about town with Ben, her old fling. I was a bit confused at the comfort she seemed to have with her ex-husband Marcos, but not so much that I was taken out of the storyline. People come to places of peace, after all.
The fate of The Cat’s Pajamas was, I thought, well handled and a fitting way to end the night. The storyline on that front was satisfying. I do wish, though, that the ending had actually been the last scene with Madeleine rather than ending with Sarina. Oh well.
The writing itself was generally solid. It was a bit disjointed. Bertino uses a lot of fragmented sentences and some strange descriptors. I’m not sure how a group of brownstones can rise up around another building “like soiled clouds.” At times the fragmented descriptions read well, but it was pretty hit or miss.
Overall, I gave this one a three. I enjoyed parts of it, but the strange characterizations and descriptors put me off. I liked the timeline presentation and the focus on multiple characters, but it sometimes seemed like the balance between storylines was a bit off.
I received this book for free for an honest review from bloggingforbooks.com
Review: O, Africa! by Andrew Louis Conn
O, Africa! is the story of two brothers: Micah and Izzy Grand. The brothers, Jewish twins from New York, have been making comedies for years. With no one to depend on, the orphans have grown into very different, but co-dependent personalities. Micah has embraced a life of debauchery. By contrast, Izzy lives like an ascetic. Set in the late 1920s, the brothers have made it into the movies. Micah directs and Izzy films movies for Imperial Productions, a b-list movie production company that is sticking firmly to the silent movies, refusing to embrace the new talkies that are taking over the filming business.
Imperial Productions is failing. In a last ditch attempt to save the company, they beg the brothers to go and take stock footage to sell to other companies, specifically, they’re to be sent to Africa. At first, they refuse. Micah does not wish to leave the comfort of New York and his mistress, a black woman named Rose. But, Micah is caught up with a ring of gamblers and is over his head in debt. They give him a choice: go to Africa and film a side project for them (a film to be titled O, Africa!) or come up with the multiple thousands of dollars that Micah simply does not have.
O, Africa! has been marketed as a book for Kavalier and Clay lovers (review here), and I can see the influence. First generation American Jews in New York making a living in art that’s been considered by their contemporaries as pretty low-rent. There’s self-destruction and discussion of homosexuality and it’s implications for a man living in the macho years surrounding the World Wars. Conn even tosses in some race discussion for an added twist. However, I didn’t like it nearly as much as Chabon’s work.
One of the most interesting things this book presents is the discussion of race. It’s prevalent throughout the book and one of the main plot motivators. Conn does a good job of including race and interracial dynamics in pre-Civil Rights era America in a way that isn’t overwhelming or overly-hokey/overly-used. Please keep in mind, that I say this knowing that my own perception of history, race, and interracial dynamics is, of course, limited. I am, after all, a white female in a Midwestern suburb with a predominantly white, middle-class population.
Conn doesn’t present Micah’s relationship with the African-American community as one of either companionship or hostility. Instead, Micah is fascinated. He’s interested in a population that he views as parallel to the rest of the world but also very other. He’s portrayed as being condescending, self-deluded, and unkind in the way he approaches blacks. He is indebted to a black man who runs a gambling ring, and Conn says that Micah views the gambling losses as a kind of admission to the zoo.
Rose, Micah’s black mistress, is described as passably white, and, though she is proudly and actively invested in black empowerment groups, she is in a kind of in-between because she is light-skinned. Interestingly, Conn chooses not to make the fact that she is black a terribly scandalous aspect of their affair. Micah’s brother’s and coworkers know about the affair and, on the rare occasion that they say anything about it, really only bring up Rose’s race as an impediment to claiming her in public.
Izzy is the artful brother. He does all of the camera work and most of the editing. He’s someone who is supposed to see things, but is very withdrawn and self-denying. Izzy is gay, and despite encouragement from his brother (who has surprisingly little to say about his brother’s sexual orientation and is, in fact, quite accepting) Izzy has never acted on these impulses. Without saying anything about what happens to Izzy over the course of the book, I was surprised with some of the reactions that Conn ascribes to him. Izzy becomes quite reckless and emotional. For someone who has spent the vast majority of his life using extreme restraint and who seems to be able to distance himself from the chaos around him, Izzy goes down a surprisingly chaotic path.
Aside from some of the strange character traits, I was turned off by the writing style. Conn uses more adjectives and modifiers than are needed. He often writes trailing lists of synonyms or rewordings that are over six units long. It made for a long read. The writing was pretty purple-prosey to begin with. It was tiring and did not let up.
I would give this book a 3. It’s got a lot of the bones of a great work, but some of the characterizations and writing style choices just didn’t do it for me.
This book was received for free in exchange for an honest review from bloggingforbooks.com
Review: Parasite by Mira Grant
Parasite by Mira Grant (read: Seanan McGuire) is up this year for the Hugo Awards (Get it here). It’s McGuire’s sixth Hugo nomination, and, I’m just going to say that if she doesn’t get it, I’ll be pretty disappointed (though Wheel of Time is a brute force in this game and Ancillary Justice has been winning all of the awards).
There’s a lot going on in Parasite. So, let’s set the stage.
About forty years from now, the world’s medicinal care is largely taken care of by “Intestinal Bodyguards,” tapeworms that secrete medicine ranging from high blood pressure medication to birth control. They’ve been credited with eradicating most illnesses and allergies. SymboGen, the Intestinal Bodyguard creators, are a huge force, ruling over the market and the health care field.
Their golden girl is Sal. After spending years in a coma, her family was going to pull the plug; everyone told them she would never wake up. But, when they take her off life support, Sal wakes up. Her Intestinal Bodyguard had saved her. Granted, she has no memory of her former life, but she’s alive, and by all accounts much nicer. She’s got a job working with animals and a nice doctor boyfriend. The only problem in her life now is that SymboGen is constantly monitoring her.
Then everything goes crazy. People, seemingly at random, start sleepwalking. They’ll be going about their daily business and then all of a sudden, no one’s home. The sleepwalking sickness doesn’t seem to have any pattern, source, or cure. What’s worse, it’s victims are starting to become violent. And, they want Sal.
The characters in this novel are well written. Though the dialogue sometimes gets a little too aware and pushes the wittiness, the characters have clear and relate-able motives and they felt very real. Though some aspects were, at times, a bit over-emphasized, you knew it was intentional and McGuire made sure to balance the characters overall.
The plot was believable and extremely well researched. It wasn’t ever overly suspenseful, but it maintained a steadily increasing sense of wrong-ness about the sleeping sickness and SymboGen. It left off on a cliff hanger after multiple plot twists. (The big one I saw coming.) I’m glad it’s only a few months to wait for the follow-up novel, Symbiont.
4.5 out of 5, easily.
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