The Lathe of Heaven

The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin

publication date: 1971
pages: 175
ISBN: 0-380-79185-4

The Lathe of Heaven, a science fiction classic, had me hooked from the first haunted sentence:

Current-borne, wave-flung, tugged hugely by the whole might of the ocean, the jellyfish drifts in the tidal abyss.

With that line, Le Guin began an exploration of the mind’s ability to change the world and humanity’s capacity for power. The book, set in Portland in the very near future, followed George Orr, a troubled young man who was mandated to visit psychiatrist William Haber. While visiting Dr. Haber, Orr confessed that he believes his dreams have the ability to actually change reality. The remainder of the book focused on Dr. Haber’s attempts to “cure” Orr, often with disastrous results.

The plot of The Lathe of Heaven was the focal point. Le Guin created an imaginative future touched with just enough realism to be compelling. Her plot, although implausible, did not seem impossible. Le Guin used her plot, which was infused with a sense of dread throughout, to reflect on man’s foibles.

Because this was a science fiction book, which usually concentrate on plot or message, I was surprised by how satisfying Le Guin’s characters were. Her characters were well-crafted and beautifully explained. Here is her account of Heather LeLache:

Why hadn’t she been a detective instead of a goddam stupid third-class civil rights lawyer? She hated the law. It took an aggressive, assertive personality. She didn’t have it. She had a sneaky, sly, shy, squamous personality. She had French diseases of the soul.

There were only a few problems I had with the book. First, my edition, a 1997 Avon Books Trade printing, was riddled with spelling errors. There were so many errors I started to wonder if that was part of the book. Second, the pacing lagged slightly in the second half the book. The third and biggest problem I had with the book was Le Guin’s scattered bouts of preachiness. For example, this statement, which seemingly was placed in the book for no other purpose than its message:

The insistent permissiveness of the late Twentieth Century had produced fully as much sex-guilt and sex-fear in its heirs as had the insistent repressiveness of the late Nineteenth Century.

Despite these minor flaws, The Lathe of Heaven is a thought-provoking and entertaining read.

5/6: seek this book out

other reviews of this book:

SF Signal
Pop Mythology
The Canary

Y: The Last Man – Unmanned

Y: The Last Man “Unmanned” by Brian K. Vaughan

publication date: 2003
pages: 127
ISBN: 1-56389-980-9

Y: The Last Man is a comic book series following Yorick Brown, a regular guy who just happens to be the last man on Earth. “Unmanned” is the first collection in the series and it encompasses issues 1 through 5. “Unmanned” begins with a normal day: Yorick talking with his girlfriend, war in the Middle East, a young woman in labor. However, after only a few pages, the scenes alter horrifically: all the men are suddenly and inexplicably dead. All the men except Yorick and his monkey Ampersand.

I’ve read only a few comic books and I’ve never finished a series. So I wouldn’t say I am familiar with the style. But “Unmanned” had me hooked from the very first grim and compelling page. The story was interesting and original, which Vaughan and his team took fully advantage of. “Unmanned” explored many issues and oddities concerning gender and power. For example, in one scene the wives of several politicians storm the White House with guns and armored vehicles. While this is happening, Yorick is saying what we’re all thinking: “Are you serious? After all the men died, I thought you guys would be holding hands down at the United Nations or something. When the hell did women get so petty and … and power-hungry?” Y: The Last Man suggests the answer to that question: maybe all humans have the capacity to be petty and power-hungry, just as all humans have the capacity to be gentle and mothering.

Aside from any message Vaughan was trying to send, Y: The Last Man was an exciting read with potent and emotive illustrations. There was a great panel when Yorick is told his father is, in fact, dead. The illustration conveyed the hope Yorick was feeling and how quickly it turned to despair.

The comic also contained humor and lightheartedness, including romance. The only area I thought the series faltered was fight scenes. None of those scenes had any action, movement, or thrill. However, that is not a large portion of “Unmanned” and the rest was compelling.

I would recommend Y: The Last Man to diehard comic readers (although, if you are a diehard, you’ve probably read it already) and to comic newbies.

4/6: worth reading

other reviews:

A.V. Club
Comic Vine
Pop Critics

The Eyre Affair

The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde

publication date: 2001
pages: 374
ISBN: 0-670-03064-3

The Eyre Affair came highly recommended to me by two people. The book follows Thursday Next, a literary detective living in England in 1985. However, Thursday Next’s England is somewhat different from the England we remember. In Thursday’s world, time travel is possible, England has been warring with Russia for decades in the Crimea, and the dodo is a popular house pet. Additionally, literary detectives like Thursday find employment solving crimes against, and even within, classic literature.

For most of this book, I was slightly confused or bewildered. There are several plot devices I think are supposed to be witty and humorous but I just thought they were stupid and pointless. For example, Thursday’s uncle, a scientist, bred worms to slither over the written word and somehow understand it. He names these creatures bookworms or, more specifically, HyperBookwormDoublePlusGood. Additionally, in this universe, the banana is a food invented by a woman named Anna Bannon. Fforde inserts little plot points or tidbits like these for reasons that I did not understand and did not find clever. And, in the case of the banana, this flippant change whitewashed over centuries of history concerning the banana industry.

Another chronic problem in the book is character names. I don’t think of myself as a character name purist or anything, but, as with other books I’ve read since starting this blog (e.g. Artemis Fowl, Black Dagger Brotherhood), I had a problem with the character names in The Eyre Affair. The villain’s last name is Hades. Characters who solved mysteries involving books have names like Paige Turner and Victor Analogy. A large corporation, which sold everything from food and clothes to the news and weapons, is called Goliath Corp. An attractive actress is known as Lola Vavoom. These names might be considered clever; I found them boring and insulting. I felt like Fforde is just using the names as a shortcut for effective character description. An unsavory character’s name is Jack Schitt. It’s like Fforde is saying, “No, trust me, even if you don’t think this Schitt guy is that bad, he’s really bad. I mean, look at his name!”

Notwithstanding the faults I found in the book, which go beyond the few I described above, Thursday Next is a satisfying character. I love that Fforde wrote a female character who still does many of the things male characters do. For example, Thursday generally refers to people by their last names. Additionally, one of the best parts of the book is Thursday’s reflections on her time as a soldier in the Crimean war. During these discussions, Thursday becomes a fully-developed, perfectly flawed character with a past, a present, and a future.

Even though this isn’t my favorite book, some people will like it, including readers of Douglas Adams and literature buffs.

3/6: more good than bad

other reviews:

New York Times
Salon
USA Today

Very Recent History

Very Recent History: An Entirely Factual Account of a Year (c. AD 2009) in a Large City by Choire Sicha

publication date: 2013
pages: 240
ISBN: 978-0-06-191430-0

From the title of this book, I expected it to contain a journalistic report of living in New York City for a year during “the Great Recession.” I anticipated a kind of objective history text that discussed not history, but the near present.

Very Recent History started off that way. The first paragraph, for example, stated something factually true, but maybe not currently considered significant, about living in New York:

One cold night in winter a young man named John walked down a street in the City. It was free to walk on the streets, although to take a public conveyance, such as a subway or a bus, cost money.

Although the book began as I expected, by discussing life in “the City” in an objective and detached way, the bulk of it was inconsistent and jumbled. The book began by discussing several macro and micro aspects of living in the City, including following several “characters,” who were presumably real people. However, a main character, John, began to emerge. As Very Recent History accompanied John in his working and dating exploits, the book became much more about narrating John’s life and much less about overtly examining the time and place in which John lived. As soon as I got a handle on this new, narrative style of the book, Sicha unfortunately injected a third, separate manner of writing. This aspect of the book would discuss something that was happening in John’s life, and then include a paragraph or two about something completely unrelated, such as homelessness, that I guess was meant to elucidate something about modern living.

This aimlessness led to passages that were both confusing and boring. For example, in one passage, the book discussed that John went to a bar called Sugarland, wherein, “It got very flirty, for no good reason. He was drunk. Well, they were all drunk.” Just a few sentences later, Sicha completely changed gears, stating, “It was easier to not have a home in the summer than to not have a home in the winter, due almost entirely to the weather.” Then, only two sentences later, another seemingly random about face and Sicha was discussing the amount of John’s vacation time.

Very Recent History did not contain enough material to be a purely informative, detached, ironic account of “very recent history,” so I understand why Sicha included the narrative portions of the book. I think, however, it would have been more successful if the book had not been framed in the title as a quasi-history book. If, instead, the book had been presented as a narrative account interspersed with observations about modern living, maybe I would have been better able to handle the shifts in presentation.

Another, related problem with Very Recent History was the dissonant changes in tone. Sometimes passages would be written in a dry, almost cumbersome, style. This passage about sexual proclivities, for example:

Sometimes people refused to acknowledge their sexual selves, leading to later trouble with mates. They hadn’t been doing what they wanted, but they hadn’t known it. For instance, many people wanted to have sex with a number of people, but they, by habit or pressure, ended up in agreements that they would have sex with just one person only.

However, other passages were written in a jaunty, childlike tone:

Then it was that time already, winter was coming on, now all the trees were all dead again!

This book attempted to tell us something about the isolation and absurdity of modern living, but was bogged down in the inconsistent narrative.

3/6: more good than bad

The Atlantic
The New York Observer (sidenote: although never explicitly stated, the main character worked at The New York Observer)
Entertainment Weekly

Daughter of Smoke & Bone

Daughter of Smoke & Bone by Laini Taylor

publication date: 2011
pages (ebook): 318
ISBN: 978-0-316-19214-9

I rarely intend to read a YA series. Instead, I often stumble upon them, as I stumbled upon Daughter of Smoke & Bone. I had a list of library books I wanted to read, but I was too lazy to go to the library so I browsed their new ebooks. One of the ebooks was this one. Because of the plot description, I figured it might be a good diversion for an evening, so I checked it out. Instead of being a “diversion,” it turned into a life-pausing event. Even if I don’t like a YA series that much, such as Beautiful Creatures, I always stay up too late reading it, spend too much money on ebooks, and neglect any and all duties until the series is done. The Daughter of Smoke & Bone trilogy was no exception.

In this book we meet Karou, a Czech artist living and working in Prague. We soon learn that Karou isn’t strictly normal; instead she can make her wishes actually come true and is routinely sent around the world by her employer to collect – of all things – teeth. Karou soon crosses paths with a beautiful young man named Akiva. And the rest of the story can be neatly summed up by the book’s epigraph: “Once upon a time, an angel and a devil fell in love. It did not end well.”

One of the reasons I was not intending to read another YA series just yet is because I’m getting tired of the Magnetic Pull between the primary male and primary female character in a YA book. It goes something like this: Our young heroine, Aberdeen, rounds a corner and stumbles right into the swashbuckling Crawford. Startled (and probably antagonistic), they look into each others’ eyes and have never seen anything so attractive. For the rest of the series, they dance around each other and experience things like this:

[Akiva knew] being near [Karou] was like balancing on a tipping world, trying to keep your footing as the ground wanted to roll you forward, hurl you into a spiral from which there was no recovery, only impact, and it was a longed-for impact, a sweet and beckoning collision.

I’m in the mood for a book that is still interesting, and sexy, but leaves behind all this ardent, “love-and-lust-are-inevitable” stuff. Don’t get me wrong, this romance was compelling; I just knew where I was being herded the entire time.

Taylor has a punchy, witty writing style and her characters are imbued with passion and brightness. She also creates some exciting fantasy, while still being aware of just how fantastical the whole thing is. For example, one character admonishes Karou that “You are not just going to vanish like this, Karou. This isn’t some goddamn Narnia book.”

Daughter of Smoke & Bone is one of the better YA series, but it is a YA series nonetheless, with all the attendant cliches, tumults, and disappointments.

4/6: worth reading

Other reviews of the book:

New York Times
Entertainment Weekly
Oh, Chrys

Gone With the Wind

Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

publication date: 1936
pages: 1448
ISBN-10: 1-4165-4894-7
ISBN-13: 978-1-4165-4894-2

I’m sure many of you have heard of this book, with its legacy both famous and infamous. Because of this book’s controversial ideals and themes, I could just as easily give it a rating of “2/6: many problems” or “5/6: seek this book out.”

I’ll begin by discussing some of the problems (and there are a lot of them). The treatment of the black characters in this book is abominable. The book is set in the American South in the 1860s and 70s; accordingly, every black character is or was a slave. Mitchell’s attitude toward her black characters was one of patronizing condescension. She implied several times that black people needed a system like slavery because they didn’t have enough initiative to exist otherwise. Related to Mitchell’s attitudes about black people was her attitude about the South. In her mind, the pre-war South was an Eden that was destroyed by hateful Yankees. These are the type of ideas that are not only stupid, but harmful.

Notwithstanding all the book’s problems, I’m glad I read it. First of all, it is part of the American cultural conversation, similar to Huckleberry Finn. Additionally, this book is a classic for a reason. Mitchell has written a sweeping, forceful epic. Gone With the Wind spans several years, dozens of characters, and societal and personal upheaval. She wrote all this without being confusing or plodding. Mitchell excelled at catching humanity in almost all its forms: the book rendered scenes of horror and love, bewilderment and ruthlessness, betrayal and naivete. When the characters weren’t running around saying ridiculous things about black people and states’ rights, I acutely felt their emotions and circumstances. Moreover, the book contained one of the best marriage proposals of all time. The scene was witty, winsome, and hilarious. At one point, the proposer says (out loud!):

I’m going away tomorrow for a long time and I fear that if I wait till I return you’ll have married some one else with a little money. So I thought, why not me and my money? Really, Scarlett, I can’t go all my life, waiting to catch you between husbands.

I don’t know if I would recommend this book. I was conflicted as a read it. However, parts of it are enjoyable and it might be a worthwhile read if you can overlook the societal ills perpetuated within the book and within the ranks of its readers.

3/6: more good than bad

Time
Jesmyn Ward
Book Riot
Literary Analysis

Black Dagger Brotherhood

The Black Dagger Brotherhood by J.R. Ward

books: 12 (only 11 were published at the time of this writing, the 12th has since come out)
pages: thousands upon thousands

There are 12 books in this series and I read the 11 that are currently published in a whirlwind. These are the type of books women read discretely on their Kindles. They follow the Black Dagger Brotherhood, a band of vampires that protects the Earth from the Lessening Society. Each book focuses on a different vampire as they find true love and sex. Although each book focuses on a different character, the books all include varying viewpoints.

So many things in these books were stupid. First, the names of the characters: Vishous, Phury, Tohrment, Qhuinn, Rhage, Rehvenge, Tehrorr, etc. Here’s a tip J.R. Ward, you can’t turn a word into a name just by adding an “H.” Two names were particularly galling: 1) Zsadist, which is clearly a play on the word “sadist.” “Sadist” comes from the Marquis de Sade, who was alive in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. However, these vampires were supposed to be hundreds of years old. How could Zsadist be named after someone that didn’t even exist until after he was born? 2) Wrath. You’ve probably noticed that the other names were misspelled. Wrath, however, was spelled correctly. So was that an intentional non-misspelling or does Ward not know how to spell the word “wrath?”

A second major problem was the way the men treated the women and the way the author treated femininity. The men fight, drink, have sex, and are basically brutes. And for some reason, in every book, a woman is ready and willing to fall in love with them. Unfortunately, the women usually don’t get a chance to do anything fun and instead are described as either working, being with their man, or sitting at home.

Also, sometimes the different plot lines were seemingly not on the same time line. The most egregious example involved a character, John Matthew, getting married in front of all the other characters, with Wrath officiating the ceremony. Ostensibly, at the exact same time, Wrath was sparring with, and mortally wounding, Payne, who was then languishing in the hospital with many of the characters at her bedside.

Notwithstanding everything I just said, these books were a lot of fun. I didn’t care too much about the overarching narrative of the series, but the relationships were entertaining. Many of the blooming duos were exciting, especially Qhuinn and Blaylock; however, some were downright boring (cough Wrath and Beth cough). Additionally, Ward actually created a fairly detailed world with an origin story, consisting of the Scribe Virgin; a cogent enemy, the Lessening Society; and its own rules and rituals.

However, Ward’s writing is not what I would call good. For example, here is an attempt at humor:

Great record to break there. Kind of like winning the fifty-meter ass-stroke in the Loser-lympics.

Also, no matter the inner monologue or alleged personality of a character, everyone spoke in the same high-octane, expletive-laden dialogue. But Ward did display a passion for the plot and the characters that was infectious and had me nodding my head along to sentences such as:

The images of Blay shaking his head was like a scar on Qhuinn’s brain, and didn’t that just carry him right out the far side of the kitchen to the storage room where the cases of alcohol were kept.

If you liked Fifty Shades or any vampire book ever, you will probably enjoy this series. If you’re looking for inspirational literature or marginally appropriate views on gender, then just keep right on walking.

3/6: more good than bad

Reviews of various books in the series:

USA Today
goodreads
The Examiner