Archive for the ‘Older Worthy Reads’ Category

The Left Hand of Darkness

Wednesday, May 15th, 2019

By Ursula K. Le Guin

The Short Take:

I’ve been slowly working through Le Guin’s Hainish novels. I’ve enjoyed them all but this one wowed me. It won the Hugo and Nebulla awards (the former selected by fans, the latter by fellow sci fi writers) when it came out in 1969 but seems very relevant today.

Why?

With so much discussion (and some confusion) about gender identity today this book could open eyes and minds, even though it is not about the LGBTQ community. Le Guin has been quoted as saying she deliberately eliminated gender in this novel to see what was left.

The inhabitants of the planet Gethan are androgynous except for a short monthly period they refer to as kemmer. At that point they take on either male or female characteristics (which can change each time) to allow mating. The rest of the time they care nothing about sex.

An earthling Envoy, sent to invite Gethen into the 83 planet Ekumen coalition, has never encountered anything similar anywhere. On the other hand, the Gethans think someone in kemmer all the time is a pervert. Children are raised by whoever births them (which can change, too) so career and life opportunities are truly equal for all.

It takes a close friendship between on Gethan and the Envoy to frankly address their differences. Their discussions and growing understanding of each other are reason enough to read this book. The Envoy, in particular, realizes how having males and females has shaped many of his perceptions — perceptions he now rethinks.

There’s also vast richness in the book’s portrayal of vastly different communications styles, and the presentation of some thought-provoking religious ideas,

In addition it’s a great story, with political intrigues (and very different governments) in two countries, great danger for several characters, and a desperate and terrifying plan for escape.

A Little Plot:

Envoy Genly Ai is on Gethan alone, to invite its people to join an interplanetary organization His biggest champion is Estraven. Ai is anticipating a positive audience with the ruler of the country of Karhide when Estraven is denounced as a traitor and threatened with death. This could mean death for Ai as well.

A Clockwork Orange

Wednesday, May 8th, 2019

By Anthony Burgess

The Short Take:

I initially chose to read this to see how it differed from the Stanley Kubrick movie, anticipating making only a short entry under What Else I’m Reading. As I got into it, I realized how powerful this book was and wanted to share more.

Why?

Two warnings: 1) Expect lots of graphic violence and sex. 2) Expect a lot of invented slang, much with Russian influence. However, due to #2, the impact of #1 is diminished somewhat. For the first 20 or so pages I often referred to the handy glossary of nadsat (teenage) language for interpretation but after a bit I could read normally as it’s mainly the same words.

This is fundamentally a story about good and evil and the importance of choice. It’s also about political manipulation, urban decay, and an accepted culture of violence. Set in a near-future (for 1963), dystopian England, the world of our youthful narrator, Alex, and his droogs (friends) is dreary at every level. Regular people stay behind locked doors at night, while teen gangs prowl and prey on anyone who catches their fancy.

Alex describes a couple of their days of ultra-violence and other activities before the plot really kicks in and the tables are turned. Then turned again. It’s strong stuff, but Alex’s musings on good and bad are provocative.

A Little Plot:

Alex happily considers himself the leader of his little band of violent thugs but when he oversteps, his droogs turn on him. Prison looks to be his future, but there is an alternative.

Anthony Burgess has long since left us but his story is interesting. If you want to know more click here.

This Good Earth

Thursday, March 7th, 2019

By Pearl S. Buck

The Short Take:

A cherished classic since its publication, Buck’s portrayal of rural life in early 19th century China is still highly readable and inspiring. Though the cycle of success and catastrophe occasionally feels predictable, isn’t that what life is? A series of ups and downs often driven by unfortunate behavior?

Why?

Buck’s book is credited with demythologizing Chinese culture, making it easier for Americas to accept them as allies during WWII. It certainly appeals to our domestic sensibilities: hard work pays off and hubris leads to disappointment. Beyond that, the characters are engaging, particularly Wang Lung, the poverty-stricken farmer who cares deeply for the land he tends.

The novel follows his life is followed from his wedding day to the day of his death, with incredible setbacks along the way. Yet Wang’s spirit and his love of his good earth never falter.  On the other hand, with our modern attitudes, his relationship with his wife, a former slave, takes some getting used to. He doesn’t really see her as a human being and is truly surprised when she occasionally behaves like one instead of a downtrodden servant.

A devious uncle, an opportunistic madam named Cuckoo, and other characters add lively notes to this novel, taking it well beyond a book about the weather-related trials of farming. It’s an easy and interesting read, opening a window on an earlier time as seen through the eyes of Buck, an American who lived and loved that land–just like Wang.

The Short Take:

Wang is exuberant about gaining a wife, a slave from the great house of a wealthy family. However, claiming her is a humiliating experience. Nevertheless, he is content because now he has someone to take care of all the household chores so he can focus on farming, and hopefully earn enough silver to buy more land to farm.

Things Fall Apart

Tuesday, October 9th, 2018

By Chinua Achebe

The Short Take:

Now 60 years old, this book has lost none of its exceptional power. It’s the first in Achebe’s African Trilogy, and I will be reading the other two. The two interrelated stories of this novel center on Okonkwo, an Ibo leader who values strength above all else. No wonder this book is often a required read for school kids. However, I wonder if they have the life experience to fully understand what they are reading.

Why?

At barely 200 pages (in trade paper), this novel is a quick read but it is stuffed with important world themes: the relationship (or lack there of) between fathers and sons, the role of women in society, the rise and fall of power, the community versus the individual.

Of course the biggest theme of all is the impact of European colonialism on countries like Nigeria and how that destroyed native cultures. While most missionaries were well intentioned, the chaos they created has repercussions that are still felt more than a century later.

However, it’s the story, the characters, and the cultural details in Things Fall Apart that keep you turning the pages in eager anticipation (or dread). My bookclub doesn’t know it yet, but I’m picking this one when it’s my turn again.

A Little Plot:

Ibo is determined not to be like his lazy, ineffective father. He achieves the success he craves, but at a cost.

The second half of the book deals with the impact Christian missionaries have on Ibo, his family, and his community.

The late Chinua Achebe has no website but there is plenty of information about him and his work online.

 

 

 

American Gods

Tuesday, August 28th, 2018

By Neil Gaiman

The Short Take:

Almost 20 years ago Gaiman wrote this fascinating novel that is part American travelogue, part mythology mash up, part a commentary on modern life. It’s every bit as relevant today and every bit as fun to read.

Why?

To call Gaiman’s books fantasies is to sell them short. To say they are dark ignores the sly humor. To say they are exceptional reads is accurate to a fault — exceptional in every sense of the word.

The American gods of the title encompass both the old ones, brought to this country by various immigrant groups, from First Peoples onward, to the new gods: technology, media, cars, etc. (humanized, of course). There’s animosity between the two sides and caught in the middle is the ex-convict, Shadow. Shadow himself seems almost godlike. He fancies coin tricks and continually stumbles onto the right action to take or thing to say. However, why he’s involved is a mystery to himself and the reader.

It’s a suspenseful read, alternately thoughtful, humorous, and horrifying. What I particularly enjoyed was trying to guess who the various gods were as they appeared throughout the book. Many were totally unknown to me, which sent me to Google quite a bit. If you want a short-cut to that information, simply consult Wikipedia.

A Little Plot:

Shadow is abruptly released from prison when his wife dies. Headed home, he can’t shake a Mr. Wednesday who insists on employing him. It takes him awhile but Shadow realizes this man is a reduced version of Odin, the chief god of Norse mythology. He accepts employment only to be warned rough times are coming. And they do.

For more about Neil Gaiman and his books, click here.

The Killer Inside Me

Sunday, July 15th, 2018

By Jim Thompson

The Short Take:

This classic noir is brutal, complex, and eminently readable. Written in the 1950s, its psychopathic main character is just as chilling — and tragic — today.

Why?

Author Jim Thompson is  more acclaimed now than in his lifetime. His numerous paperback crime paperbacks were largely ignored — but not this one. And for good reason. The writing is taut and smart. It’s so smart you need to read between the lines to determine exactly what happened in the past that continues to fracture the life of the main character, Deputy Sheriff Lou Ford.

On the surface Ford is the nicest guy in his small, 1952 town, though not the brightest. But he knows better, and you’ll know better from the very first pages. Written in first person (a noir trope), the revealed insights you gain are chilling. He is a true psychopath — a self-aware, highly intelligent psychopath with a terrible past and haunting secrets.

That all makes for a rather gruesome present, but his actions are presented in a style that is neither lurid nor nauseating — simply straightforward. So don’t be put off — this is too good to pass up. It’s a fascinating picture of the trap of living in a small town, with small people, and everyone it everyone else’s business. There’s a lot going on here.

A Little Plot:

Ford is deputy sheriff of the small town where he was born. He lives in the house he inherited from his doctor father. His brother, who went to prison for a crime he did not commit, died in an “accident” after he was released. Ford would like to see that death avenged.

But first there’s a prostitute that needs to be encouraged to move on. However, that’s not what Ford has in mind.

The House of the Spirits

Wednesday, August 9th, 2017

Unknown-1By Isabel Allende

The Short Take:

Magical realism meets with political oppression in this over 30-year-old novel — Allende’s first. I’ve long been a fan of hers, and this epic story following three generations of exceptional women — and one very powerful man — did not disappoint.

Why?

I did not know Allende was the niece of the Chilean Marxist President Salvador Allende and that the political side of this novel was solidly founded on historical fact. Blame my scant knowledge of South American events for that, which researching for this review helped to remedy in some small fashion.

These political underpinnings start well in the novel’s background but eventually move to center stage as the book progresses. Above and beyond that, one amazing woman after another shapes and reshapes the lives of those around them, through powers both domestic and supernatural. It’s their stories that keep you engaged and keep you reading.

While most of the book is written in third person, the violent man who impacts all their lives, Esteban Trueba, speaks to you directly, though his actions sometimes give the lie to his words.

A hound as big as a horse, levitation, fantastical creche figures, fortune telling, and other peculiarities stride alongside growing political turmoil as the downtrodden begin to insist on their rights. Somehow Allende makes that combination seem realistic — it’s all fantastic.

A Little Plot:

Esteban labors at his a gold mine, desperate to earn the money to marry his adored Rosa. Her accidental death drives him to bury his sorrows with work on the decayed family farm. It also drives Rosa’s younger sister, Clara, to refuse to speak for nine years. Yet the future of these two will entwine.

For more about Allende, click here.

War and Peace

Monday, June 27th, 2016

Unknown-1By Leo Tolstoy (translated by Richard Pevear and Alissa Volokhonsky)

The Short Take:

Don’t be afraid of this classic read — it’s easy to follow and exceptionally interesting. While Tolstoy does spend a lot of time philosophizing, his musings are still relevant more than 150 years later. The biggest problem with this novel: its massive weight. This is one time an e-reader could really save your wrists.

Why?

First of all, be sure you select this particular translation to read. It was highly praised when it came out in 2007, as being the first to capture the richness of Tolstoy’s prose. Side-by-side excerpt samples proved what the critics said — don’t settle for less.

Second, don’t be put off by Tolstoy’s tendency to set the action aside for many pages to ruminate on such topics as war, history, the nature of power, and other subjects. They are both fascinating and insightful.

Finally, even though there is a large cast of characters, they are so clearly delineated it is no problem to keep everyone straight in your head. I read this book over seven months, reading 26 other books in that time, and had no problem remembering either the plot lines or the characters. Not only that, I know this is one book that will stay with me. That’s powerful writing. That’s Tolstoy.

A Little Plot:

The Russians join the Austrians to fight Napoleon until a peace treaty is concluded. Later Napoleon invades Russia anyway. Meanwhile, a bastard son becomes a rich Count, hearts are won and broken, people die —  it has all the drama of an exceptionally rich epic historical fiction. But, in Tolstoy’s hands it is so much more.

City of God

Wednesday, October 7th, 2015

51kPMILGhiL._SL75_By E. L. Doctorow

The Short Take:

This book was engrossing, thoughtful, challenging, brilliant!  It really made you think about religion, faith, science, film, philosophy, music, and more. It’s some 15 years old — written as a millennium opus — but is just as relevant today.

Why?

The above should be enough. Plus, it’s all wrapped around the story of an Episcopal priest who is trying to shore up his wavering faith, a pair of Jewish rabbis endeavoring to determine what is essential in their own religion, and a bronze cross mysteriously stolen from the former only to wind up with the latter.

Then there’s the interspersed story of a child growing up during the Holocaust (father of one of the rabbis). Not to mention sections supposedly narrated by Albert Einstein and others. Even the title is intriguing — the same as St. Augustine’s religious/philosophical classic.

It’s a feast for the mind. So glad I finally read it.

A Little Plot:

See above. That about covers it.

Ulysses

Saturday, May 16th, 2015

51yXIymgmwL._SL75_By James Joyce

The Short Take:

This was the second book of my 2015 self-challenge. I was feeling fairly smug after my Moby Dick experience. Well, James Joyce knocked me down several pegs. I was thrilled to actually follow what was going on — which wasn’t all the time. The only reason I finished was shear bull-headedness.

Why?

Everyone said Moby Dick was so hard. Well, I not only got through it, I liked it. So I approached this one with my confidence high. Ha ha ha!

There were many times when I thought the language was beautiful — if only I had some idea what Joyce was expressing. The stream-of-consciouness bits were the easiest to follow. It was the conversations that threw me for a loop: snippets of talk and action from more than one location were sometimes intermixed with no way to tell who was where and saying what. And, the long hallucinatory sequence in the brothel? Imagine reading a hundred pages written like The Beatles “I Am the Walrus,” only there’s no music. Just words. Ugh.

To see if I was “getting it” at all, I read notes on the various sections after completing them. I was often on the right track, but there were  occasions when my reaction was, “Really?! How did someone figure that out?”

I had read that Joyce claimed this book would have literary types guessing for years, and I can see where you could seriously study this book. Not me, however, I’m just glad its over.

A Little Plot:

It’s a day in the life of Leopold Bloom, which supposedly reflects the story of the hero Ulysses, who goes about doing and thinking one thing and another in Dublin.

PS. The final book in my challenge is Tolstoy’s War and Peace. However, Russian writers just don’t feel like summer fare, so I’m waiting till September to tackle that one. Until then, it’s back to usual.

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