Book Review: Powers by Ursula K. Le Guin

Despite being recently published and winning the 2008 Nebula Prize for Best Novel, I very rarely see Powers discussed. It’s a part of Annals of the Western Shore, three Young Adult novels that are vaguely connected but can be read in any order, like the Hainish Cycle. But don’t be put off by the YA label. In the case of Powers (and presumably the other two) all it means is that the protagonist in younger and seems like little more than a marketing gimmick.

Gavir is a young slave who, along with his sister, is owned by a wealthy family in the city-state Etra. He’s being brought up to serve as a teacher for both slave and royal children and has a lot of access to old poetry and stories (there’s lots in the book, but it never reaches Lord of the Rings levels of poetry and song, if that turned you off Tolkien). He also has a gift: he can dream about the future.

As you might guess, Gavir, once a teenager, escapes and explores the world around him. There is little overarching story; at times, it seems almost picaresque, as he goes from one location to another. As a result, it never turns into a page-turner, but it is thought-provoking, particularly when it comes to slavery and freedom.

Surprisingly, Gavir’s precognition skills end up being less important than you’d think. Though they do come up (I won’t spoil it and say how), at the beginning it appears Le Guin is setting up the power to move the plot forward. Instead, other than a sub-plot towards the end, it serves as foreshadowing and little else.

And the ending—ugh. Pretty anticlimactic. Spoilers alert:

 

Gavir discovers that a member of the family he escaped from is hunting him and has been for quite some time; Gav’s just been lucky in avoiding him. There’s a cat-and-mouse game as Gav and a little girl who he picked up on his travels, run to a city in the north where everyone is free. The hunter almost catches them…and then instead of a fight or even some resolution with this character, they cross a river before he gets to them and that’s it. They’re free and no longer have to worry about him.

 

End Spoilers.

Despite the weak ending, it’s a solid book, well deserving of its award win. I’d give it 4 stars and recommend it as proof that old age hasn’t slower Le Giun one bit.

Book Review: An Angel Walks Through the Stage and Other Essays by Jon Fosse

I wouldn’t recommend anyone start with Jon Fosse here. Although he is a famed playwright, novelist and poet in Norway, he’s never been renowned for nonfiction. He actually published two books of essays totaling something like 600 pages early in his career before giving it up, and the present volume is a selection from those with one or two speeches that he gave later on. The pieces aren’t bad, in fact I really enjoyed them and gave the book 5 stars on Goodreads. It’s more that unless you’re already acquainted with Fosse’s work, you won’t get much out of them.

A lot of the essays here are about theory, but none are so dense as to be bogged down in academic prose. Instead, Fosse comments on philosophy and figures like Derrida, discussing more their impact on his thinking than any scholarly interpretations. There are also flashes of his biography here and there, like his schooling or his music-loving teenage years, nowhere hear anything comprehensive but, given the lack of information on Fosse in English, fans should delight in what’s here.

Many of the essays here are short, small thoughts rather than comprehensive arguments, just a page or two, with topics ranging from plays to Beckett to Bernhard.

If you already like Fosse and enjoy Literature with a capital “L” (I can’t imagine there are many from the first category that don’t fall in the second), then this is another great addition to Fosse’s oeuvre available in English. If you’re looking for a good place to start with him and neither Morning and Evening or I Am the Wind appeal to you, don’t worry, more reviews of his novels and plays are forthcoming.

Nobel Prize Speculations

So, the announcement date for the Nobel prize in Literature has been pushed back by a week. The committee said that this is due solely to the dates and when they meet, but as others have said, it’s quite probable that this delay is actually because of a disagreement about who to award. Most times in past years, the eventual winner was in the top 10 at Ladbrokes (yes, people bet on everything; not only that, but betting sites are actually used quite frequently in Nobel speculation), and, to my knowledge, the few times it wasn’t, the laureate had been added to the list and was rising suspiciously through the odds at this point in time. So, going off this, who could be this year’s winner/if there is an argument, which writers could they be battling over?

Haruki Murakami has consistently been the odds favorite for many years now, could this be his year? Could some academy members wanting to give him the prize be the reason for the delay? Honestly, probably not. As a fan of Murakami, I don’t know if I’d say he’s deserving. His prose is simple (and not in the Hemingway-sense where it feels like there’s an artistic reason behind it) and at times awkward (which could be the translation, but I’ve heard the English versions are quite close to the original). His stories are all similar, and, most importantly, if they’ve passed over him before, I don’t see any reason to give it to him now. His latest book wasn’t exactly a masterpiece, and if he didn’t win before, I don’t see him nabbing the Nobel now.

There is Adunis, though, a Syrian poet who writes in Arabic. I’ve read a short collection by him, and although poetry is not really my thing, I wouldn’t mind to see him win. That said, he has been considered the frontrunner before and has certainly been nominated—in 2005, the last time the announcement was delayed by a week, he was thought to be a finalist—meaning, why would he win now? The political situation in Syria? The civil war and refugee crisis isn’t new this year, and in 2005, sources said Orhan Pamuk, who was undergoing a trial in Turkey over freedom of speech, was another finalist but that the academy might pass him over in order to prevent the prize from getting too political (Pamuk would end up winning the following year). Perhaps the row is over giving it to Adunis, but I don’t see why he would end up walking away with it.

Ngugi wa Thiong’o has long been thought of as Africa’s frontrunner, but he has the same problem: nothing he’s published recently has really made waves. I also greatly dislike his work, so while it wouldn’t be the end of the prize if he won, I would prefer to see another African win. (On the other hemisphere, I put Joyce Carol Oates and Philip Roth in this category. I don’t understand why they keep coming up year after year).

Jon Fosse rose in the odds in 2013, when Alice Munro turned out to be the winner, but since then he’s been thought of as a likely candidate. Boosting his chances are his plays—Pinter was the last playwright winner—and a recent prestigious award for his recent “trilogy.” So we have an underrepresented type of literature with a recent big important work that might put him over the edge. I am hesitant, though: the same academy that awards the Nobel also gives out a smaller Scandinavian-only prize that Fosse won in 2007. If it was his year, I don’t know if an argument like this would be happening—the academy clearly already likes his work.

Javier Marias, meanwhile, is one of the few writers to see real changes in odds this year. He started out around 50/1 and moved all the way up to 17/1. The thing about him, though, is that he really didn’t deserve to be at such low odds originally. If I was a betting man, I’d have put some money on him just because of how low he was. He’s been bandied about in discussions online as a potential winner for several years now, and betting on him at 50/1 could give you a pretty penny.

Mircea Cartarescu has been called the Romanian frontrunner for several years now, after his humongous work Blinding, and just this year he published another large, critically acclaimed work. Like Marias, he also saw a jump in his odds, but also like Marias, he really should have been higher to begin with anyway.

So, who will end up winning? Other than Cartarescu and Marias, a few others have seen their odds go down (Fosse, Adunis and Roth included) but those changes were so small and there has been no other movement from them that no conclusions can really be drawn. And anyway, those with the lowest odds usually see them drop even lower in the weeks prior, so it’s not unexpected. Hopefully this next week, as the academy figures out who will win, we see more movement/even a leak.

As for my picks, I’d like to see Fosse or Marias win it this year. There are a number of others I wouldn’t mind seeing win (William T. Vollmann, Can Xue, Su Tong, Louise Erdrich), but I don’t think it’ll be any of them; had they made it to the shortlist, we probably would have seen their names rise (or just appear) on a betting list.

Book Review: Doomsday Book by Connie Willis

The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis is one of those flawed books that you still can’t help but love. Please note that this review will have spoilers in, so read on at your own peril!

In the future, time travel has been invented, and historians use it to study their areas of interest. One student at Oxford, Kivrin, is about to go back into the Middle Ages. Though going back that far can be dangerous, the head of the history department is on vacation and the professor filling in is cocky and eager to show his worth. Mr. Dunsworthy, another professor in the department, is not so sure about the whole thing but is overruled. Shortly after Kivrin is sent back, however, the technician seeks out Mr. Dunsworthy to try to tell him about something that went wrong, but before he can he collapses from disease. An epidemic soon falls upon London.

Even worse, unbeknownst to them, Kivrin falls ill almost immediately after reaching the medieval ages. Although she is picked up and taken care of, she needs to return to the exact spot she first appeared at a specific date in order to get back to her own time—and she has no idea where that spot is.

Alternating between Kivrin and Mr. Dunsworthy perspectives, The Doomsday Book is an almost perfect mix of comedy, tragedy, and excitement. Willis’s sense of humor is laugh-out-loud funny.

Part of the problem is the length. This very easily could have been edited down from the 600 or so pages that it is, especially the first half of Kivrin’s adventures in the past. No real progress is made during those chapters, and while Willis is skilled enough that you never have to power through, it does drag.

The characters in the past, too, are faulty. Some aren’t developed enough and others get involved in subplots that are never resolved. It turns out that the mistake the technician found was that Kivrin was accidentally sent back to 1348, the year the Black Plague reached England. Ultimately, every character in the past other than Kivrin dies from it. Willis could have meant this to be one of those books where everything is normal until a catastrophic event interrupts daily life, but as it is, she really just sets out the building blocks for subplots (so-and-so likes a married woman?) but then does nothing with them so that it just seems like set up for no reason. Though the Mr. Dunsworthy chapters also suffer from this, they are nowhere near as bad as the medieval ages.

But despite these problems, The Doomsday Book is an irresistible read. Willis is a Grand Master in science fiction and for good reason. It’s a case of where the author is already so skilled that their flaws are even more noticeable than had they come from a lesser writer.

Book Review: Binti by Nnedi Okorafor

Warning: There will be tons of spoilers in this review.

Binti is an unfortunate book. I say that because it starts out with such promise. A girl—Binti—gifted at mathematics runs away from her ancestral home in order to attend a prestigious university. Sounds good so far, if a little cliché. While on the spaceship traveling there, aliens attack and kill almost everyone except for Binti and the pilot. Binti survives cunning and perseverance until she discovers the purpose of the raid: the aliens want to take over the ship so that they can do a surprise attack at the university and retrieve something that was stolen from their leader. Binti agrees to be their interpreter, both for her own survival and to try and get the two cultures to understand each other a bit better.

So far, the narrative has stumbled here and there, but for the most part it holds itself together and is an interesting read.

That is, until the ending.

After landing at the university, professors and staff argue about the aliens until finally they come to an agreement: they will give back the items they took, Binti can still attend, and an alien who Binti befriended can also enroll. The whole bit reads like one of those fake “that happened” stories online. The everyone who died on the ship is forgotten. While there is a sequel that may address this, it might be kind of relevant to bring up that massacre again in the book in which it occurred. They were not exactly well-developed, but still. And the mathematical skills that Binti possesses do come up again, but only in the abstract. They come in handy when she’s trying to survive, but it might as well be magic from the way it’s described. While nitpicky, it still is bothersome, especially since I felt there was some real potential for it to be used in interesting ways. The only good thing I can say about this is that it’s short.

Book Review: The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

The Fifth Season is the very deserving winner of the 2016 Hugo award for best novel. It takes place in a fantasy world where every few hundred years a cataclysmic, multi-year long disaster will happen, much like a miniature extinction event. The book starts as another is beginning. “Magic” in this world works by controlling earth, and most people cannot be taught: you either have the gift or don’t. these people are feared and reviled, kept away from society in their own slave-like community.

I won’t say much more about the book itself, because I went in cold, not knowing what to expect, and came away exhilarated so I don’t want to say too much. The world-building is incredibly interesting. And the plot…I remember as a teenager reading a ton of fantasy books and reaching parts where it would be almost painful to tear myself away from the action. That’s like the whole second half of this novel. Just go out and read it, it’s one of the best fantasy books I’ve read in a long time.

Reviews: Cat Pictures Please & Folding Beijing

Warning, this review has spoilers. I’ve grouped these two “in-depth” reviews together because there really isn’t much to say about them beyond what I’ve already said.

Cat Pictures Please by Naomi Kritzer would have been a quirky, weak winner in another year, but with the puppies, she is by far the best choice this year. The basic premise is that an AI becomes sentient and tries to help people in between viewing cat pictures. The actual plot is episodic, detailing her various attempts to help people, focusing on three. It doesn’t always work out, but no matter what happens, the story never becomes thrilling. The episodic set up prevents real tension from ever building.

Beyond the cute, crowd-pleasing premise (cat pictures have been a big thing on the internet since I first got into it), there isn’t too much here. I can see why this was nominated for the Nebula, but I can also see why it didn’t win.

A worthy winner? I’ve read worse that won Hugos during average years, but it’s not one of the stronger pieces.

As for Folding Beijing by Hao Jingfang, there isn’t too much else to say because the whole story hinges on the idea of a folding city. Beijing here is split up into three different sections. City 1 is populated by the rich, and they also get the most time awake. City 2 is a step below that, and city 3 is filled with manual workers. Each night, as one city goes to sleep, the city folds up and another (temporarily) takes its place.

There is a story here: a worker from city 3 sneaks into city 2 and then city 1 to deliver a love letter between a bureaucrat and a woman. Capture means at best jail, but if he succeeds he gets the money he needs to send his daughter to a good school. But like I said before, since his daughter hardly ever appears, the plot feels less like a vehicle for excitement than a way to show off this concept.

The disappointing thing is that this concept is indeed a great one: more stories set in this world to flesh it out more would be awesome. I could see this winning or coming in a close second place in a normal year. It’s not perfect, but it is thought-provoking, intriguing, and although the plot has problems, it never truly drags.

Book Review: Story of Your Life and Other Stories by Ted Chiang

There is almost no one writing like Ted Chiang today. He is famously unprolific, and yet almost every story he publishes receives accolades. Rather than sing vague exultations of him, though, let’s dive into his short story collection.

Tower of Babylon- This was his first published story (the stories here are in order of publication). It went on to win a Nebula award (not that I’m jealous or anything…). It follows a group of miners who ascend the Tower of Babylon. The reason miners are needed high in the sky? This world follows the Babylonian view of the world, so in addition to other bizarre sights, at the top of the tower they run into a stone barrier they need to break through. Probably one of my favorite stories here.

Understand- After a near-fatal drowning, a man is brought back through the use of a drug that makes him super smart. Smarter than the government…although the premise is cliché, Chiang pulls this off by making it less of a thriller and more of a thoughtful piece.

Division by Zero- A woman checks into a mental facility after she disproves a fundamental aspect of mathematics. As a professor, until then, mathematics had been her life. Her husband, meanwhile, has a change of opinion about something… Although it’s not speculative fiction as most people think of the genre, it provides something that had been missing in “Understand,” humanity. The relationship between husband and wife is more compelling than a supercomputer lying in his apartment.

Story of Your Life- The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is a largely discredited theory in linguistics that a language shapes the speaker’s perceptions of the world. It still makes for compelling reading, though. Other examples of it in fiction include Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany and The Dispossessed by Ursula K. le Guin. I won’t spoil how Chiang handles it, but it’s an original way. The story itself is about a race of aliens who communicate with Earth. Linguists try to learn their language to understand what they’re doing, but the aliens’ motives remain elusive. Peppered throughout are the linguist’s reminisces about her daughter. One of the best here.

The Evolution of Human Sciences- A flash fiction piece. It concerns the idea that one day science might get too technical for anyone untrained to understand–taken to the extreme, of course. This one’s a little rough because beyond there’s little plot, little conflict. It’s just describing a possible future.

Seventy-Two Letters- This takes a myth and a discredited scientific theory and welds them together beautifully. This takes place around the early 1800s in an alternate version of England. Here, golems (like in Jewish lore) work is you discover the right permutation of letters to power them, and that humans have a fixed number of generations during which they can reproduce. In this is a scientist who wishes to improve the lives of the lower class. He quickly finds himself caught in the middle of a guild who does not want him to impinge upon their livelihood and a shadowy organization made up of high society members.

Hell is the Absence of God- What if angels were real and every time they appeared, explosions and miracles occurred, killing some but saving others? That’s the premise here. When a man loses his wife to an angel, he tries to forgive God and love Him so that he can follow her up into heaven, but he hates Him too much for taking away his love. Two other characters going through their own trials fill out this tale. Everyone seems to love this one (it won a number of awards, too) but I was not overly impressed. Sometimes when a writer has a very economical style, they can write a story using too few words, like there should have been more to fill it out. I had that problem here. The idea was thought provoking, but not enough time was spent developing the characters for me to be satisfied.

Liking What You See: A Documentary- It’s a documentary because the story is narrated through a ton of different voices, each one getting their own scenes. The premise is that a college wants to install a device in their students that filters out beauty, that is, they no longer recognize what faces are beautiful and which are ugly. Chiang was nominated for a Hugo award for this story but declined, saying that editorial pressure made him rush the story and it didn’t turn out how he wanted it, and this one did feel a little rougher. Although Chiang tries to give both sides of the issue proper arguments, in my eyes, he failed for the “against” side, the people who want to continue to see beauty and ugliness. Their arguments often come across as manipulative and one-dimensional, and when a story relies on being provoking new ideas rather than being gripping, that sort of thing just doesn’t work. A disappointing way to end the collection.

Over all, this is an amazing collection. Even the “missteps” are just average, not bad. Anyone with even a slight interest in science fiction needs to check out Chiang.

Book Review: The Last Lover by Can Xue

Can Xue is becoming one of my favorite writers. She’s a surreal writer from China, and when I say surreal, I mean, if you imagine Haruki Murakami being a 3/10 in terms of otherworldly content, she’s a 10. Her stories quickly lose sight of reality and enter their own horrific dream worlds. In English, her best-known work is her novel Five Spice Street, but I prefer The Last Lover, winner of the 2015 Best Translated Book Award.

It starts out simple enough: Joe, a sales manager at a clothing store, who wants to mentally link all the books he’s ever read in his head so that he can always be reading. His wife, Maria, is has mystical problems of her own, and both Joe’s boss and a customer of his are having issues with spouses and lovers.

Locations repeat, people become animals, ghosts appear, and characters visit cities that are entirely underground. Though most of the characters have overarching stories, most chapters are episodic. Present throughout (and linking everything together) is the theme of love and what it means to these people.

There’s not too much else to say. Can Xue’s writing is like a kaleidoscopic dream. And much like dreams, describing it to other people is just boring. You have to read it yourself to experience it. It’s not for everyone, but it’s now one of my favorites.

A Young Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway needs no introduction. His minimalistic stylistic innovations won him the Pulitzer and Nobel prizes and are still influential almost a hundred years later. Not only that, but his first full-length novel, The Sun Also Rises, established him as a major force in literature and some consider it his best work today. I recently read two volumes of a Hemingway biography, The Young Hemingway and The Paris Years by Michael S. Reynolds, and was struck by just how motivational a figure Hemingway was. Even if you dislike his social views or his larger than life persona, there’s a lot to learn from his discipline and early failures.

After serving in World War 1 as an ambulance, driver falling in love with a nurse, he returned to his family in Illinois and tried to piece back his shell-shocked life. Overseas, he had mentioned to the nurse that he was a writer, and he was determined to professionally publish something so that his lie would become reality.

But as their relationship fell apart, he continued writing and sending off his stories to places like the Saturday Evening Post. Although he wrote voluminously, all were rejected. They were, for the most part, non-autobiographical tales written in imitation of the popular writers of the day like Kipling and Sherwood Anderson and bad poems. He also started a novel based on his life in the war and with the nurse and worked on it intermittently. At the same time, he found work as a journalist, honing his skills for papers, but he considered this hackwork.

Eventually, he found another girl, Hadley, married her, and soon after attracted the attention of Sherwood Anderson. He advised the young writer to go to Paris, where the cost of living was a lot less, and where many artists were shacking up. He gave them a couple of letters of introduction to people like Gertrude Stein and Sylvia Beach, and then the couple was off in 1922.

Hadley had a trust fund that would have enabled them to live, albeit just above the poverty line, with no work, but Hemingway refused and kept doing journalism, and traveled to Germany and Turkey and Greece to cover stories. All the while he kept writing–until tragedy struck.

While traveling, Hadley was supposed to meet him, bringing with her a valise filled with his stories, but somehow, somewhere in the crowded train and station, she lost it. Hemingway was heartbroken: other than on story (Up in Michigan) and some juvenilia he had outgrown, every story he had written along with his novel had vanished. He revised Up in Michigan a bit, but due its sexual content, it took a while for it to see print.

But the good news was soon after he finally got a book deal. It was not a glamorous publishing house, in fact, it was practically a vanity press printing, and the book, Three Stories and Ten Poems, sold less than ten copies in Paris. His next book, in our time, received similar press. And although he was starting to make a name for himself in literary circles in Paris, few magazines would take his work. His first big story publication, Indian Camp, was published in The Transatlantic Review, where he sat on the editorial board. Another short story collection followed, entitled In Our Time (with capital letters this time), and while it won praise from critics, the day when Hemingway would be able to earn decent money from his writing was still a few years away.

His break out novel came out in 1926, 8 years after 1918 when he had returned to Illinois and begun toiling away almost everyday. Although he is falling from critical favor now, he still provides a good lesson on staying motivated. If you don’t quit writing, one day you’ll see publication. Just don’t get discouraged when it takes you multiple years.