The Left Hand of Darkness

Once in a while I like to revisit things I hated when I was younger, usually in the form of either books or food. Sometimes I leave with my aversion even more fully cemented (still hate ham, still hate Nightwood) and sometimes I discover that my palate has sophisticated in the intervening years.

Ursula K. Le Guin was one of those authors, to my shame as a science fiction fan. My first encounter with her was when I was too young and too impatient to really appreciate the complexity of what she was doing: I had to read The Tombs of Atuan for an extracurricular reading event in middle school. I didn’t enjoy the experience, to the point where I gave up midway through the book—unusual for me, especially at that age. A few years later I gave The Dispossessed a try. It was a fancy edition from the Science Fiction Classics series put out by Easton Press, with leather binding and shiny gold trim. Despite the luxurious trappings, once again my brain wasn’t having it.

But this tale has a happy ending! Well into adulthood, the Austin Feminist Sci-Fi Book Club picked The Dispossessed and I liked it just fine. Maybe my prefrontal cortex just needed to finish developing. Who knows.

And here’s the happy postscript to the above happy ending. The two founding members of the Austin Feminist Sci-Fi Book Club were married in 2021 and, as a sort of long-distance wedding favor, sent all of their originally intended guests random science fiction paperbacks that one or both of them had really liked. This is how I came into possession of The Left Hand of Darkness.

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin
Image courtesy Ace Books

There is a lot of intrigue in The Left Hand of Darkness, and from what I recall in The Dispossessed as well, and maybe that’s what kept my brain from taking to Le Guin to begin with. I’m a simple creature, naive and without guile. All of the political maneuvering in both books is lost on me, but I can still enjoy the complexity of the societies Le Guin creates, whether it’s anarchist collectives of Anarres or the ambisexual population of Winter. And considering our shifting and broadening cultural understanding of gender, The Left Hand of Darkness is a particularly apt example to revisit right now.

Gösta Berlings saga

It took several months, but I finally finished Gösta Berlings saga. I read it years ago in English; now it was time for Swedish. The only problem is that when you read dense Swedish for most of your work day, there’s not a lot of brain left over for dense Swedish for fun. As a result it took me much longer than it normally would to finish a book of this length and linguistic heft. (Not to compare the quality of writing in a Selma Lagerlöf novel to that of a financial report!)

Cover of Gösta Berlings saga by Selma Lagerlöf
Image courtesy Ansgar Forlag

It’s Gösta Berlings saga, it’s good, the end. What’s more interesting about the book is how many English translations there are. The English translation I originally read was the 1918 edition put out by the American-Scandinavian Foundation, which is essentially Lillie Tudeer’s translation with supplemental material from Velma Swanston Howard, and I remember it as a bit of a slog. I can’t put my finger on it, except to say that it felt very dull and dead. But there have since been three other translations and I thought it would be fun to look at how they all handle that iconic opening line.

The original:

Äntligen stod prästen på predikstolan.*

Or Äntligen stod prästen i predikstolan, depending on which edition you’ve read. Mine is from 1920, so rather than i.

The Lillie Tudeer translation (1894):

The pastor was mounting the pulpit steps.

This is obviously, at a bare minimum, not particularly faithful to the original.

The Pauline Bancroft Flanch translation (1898):

At last the minister stood in the pulpit.

Already we’re much closer to the original.

The Robert Bly translation (1962):

At last the minister stood in the pulpit.

This translation is not a wholly new work but an edited and revised version of the Flanch translation, so not at all surprising it’s identical to the previous one.

The Paul Norlen translation (2009):

At long last the minister stood in the pulpit.

This translation is an entirely new work, and straightaway we have a little extra flavor in the text.

Since I’m writing this in English, I suppose I should leave off with a recommendation for which translation to pick up. Well, it goes without saying that I’d give a pass on the omnipresent Dover Thrift Edition or any other version of Lillie Tudeer’s translation. I’m the most curious now about Paul Norlen’s translation, though I have an all-or-nothing brain and so will probably burn through all three of the other versions in short order anyway.

Forever Novels and the Terrible Trivium: Camp NaNoWriMo

Normally I wouldn’t bother talking about my Forever Novel, at least not here. It’s on brand, sure, but it’s a little too personal and a little too embarrassing. Would you trust an editor who had spent over eight years on a novel and didn’t have a completed, polished draft to show for it? Probably not. I don’t know that I would. Never mind the temptation to start talking about what my Forever Novel is actually about, which I’m both dying to do and which I would prefer never to do. But since I’d like to keep up my weekly-ish schedule here and I’m out of book reviews, and since I’ve been busy with Camp NaNoWriMo this month, I guess I have no choice except to talk about writing. (It dawned on me, in the middle of writing this post, that I could have just nattered on a bit about my trip to Paris, or short stories I’ve read recently, or the books I was going to read next, or the books I’m currently reading, but oh well.)

My Forever Novel

I wrote the first draft of my Forever Novel during National Novel Writing Month in 2014. I completed the sixth round of revisions on it last week, meaning that I won Camp NaNoWriMo by meeting my self-appointed goal of revising the last 25 chapters out of a total of 156. I then overshot my goal by immediately going back to the beginning and reading through the newly revised manuscript from the beginning and—as you do—immediately making further edits. For an idea of scope, we’re talking about just a hair over 80,000 words.

I’m glad I met my goal for Camp NaNoWriMo, not least because this particular round of revisions was unusually tricky and was where I made the deepest and most painful cuts. This is the revision where I figured out the skeleton of the whole weird thing. It’s nice to finally know what I’m dealing with.

But is it anything I want to deal with?

There was certainly a personal, emotional value in writing this Forever Novel, from the first mad NaNoWriMo dash in 2014 to this rather casual rounding off last week. The entire process was a surprisingly effective way of expunging a particularly dysfunctional friendship from my psyche. Anything I ever wanted to say to the other party in real life just got dumped into the novel. Approaching all of that from a writerly perspective helped me see how much was petty spite that really didn’t serve the story, and as I cut those elements out from the story, it also seemed to drain all of the petty spite out of myself. Or did the various drafts only reflect my own maturation back to me with each passing year? Hard to say. Either way, I’m now left with a weird, ambitious story and a feeling in the pit of my stomach that my reach has exceeded my grasp.

The truth is, not every project has value. Or perhaps a kinder way to phrase that is: not every project has value in its completion. The only value this project might ever have is helping me process and discard a hang-up I’d been nurturing for fifteen years, give or take. If I feel obligated to see it through to completion, to the point of excluding other projects and losing that sense of play and exploration, is that really a good thing? Marcy Dermansky went for the jugular right in the opening paragraph of this essay for LitHub:

A lesser-known fact about me: In addition to writing my own novels, I am a developmental editor. I help authors improve their novels. Sometimes these novels get sold; sometimes—as one of my despairing clients knows all too well—they don’t. About a year ago, she came back to me wanting to work on a sixth draft based on the suggestions of an interested agent. “At this point,” she said. “I just want this novel to be over.”

There was true heartbreak in her voice—and also real animosity for her novel. It was clear to me that she had begun to hate the book she once loved, had been working on for years. And while the one interested agent’s suggestion to move the end of the novel to the beginning, forecasting the events to come, could work, it was more likely not a good idea. I could sense pure dread. All the joy, all the play was gone. “You can rework material to death,” I warned her, and honestly, she already had. “Why don’t you start something new. See what happens. Have fun. Play.”

When that essay appeared in my inbox, I instantly recognized myself in that despairing author. I was not at the stage of animosity or pure dread yet, but I could sense it as a distinct possibility. For the first time, I allowed myself to ask the question: what am I even doing with this project.

The Terrible Trivium

The truth is, I haven’t really seriously worked on any other fiction since 2014 because I’ve been so focused on my Forever Novel. I used to lament that majoring in writing was a pointless endeavor, that if you wanted to write you would; at this point in my life I have to admit that I can see value in having a two-week deadline to churn out new material or else risk failing a class. I might have hated writing short stories (as this blog post nears 1,000 words, you might have noticed I struggle with brevity) but I still wrote them within that rather narrow deadline. Without fail. They were an assignment, and I had to get them done, and so that was that. I have them all still today and I actually kind of like a few of them.

Now adrift in the real world, I don’t have to write short stories when I write. Great! But without the motivating factor of a deadline and a passing grade, it’s all too easy to fall under the spell of the Terrible Trivium.

“But why do only unimportant things?” asked Milo, who suddenly remembered how much time he spent each day doing them. “Think of all the trouble it saves,” the man explained, and his face looked as if he’d be grinning an evil grin – if he could grin at all. “If you only do the easy and useless jobs, you’ll never have to worry about the important ones which are so difficult. You just won’t have the time. For there’s always something to do to keep you from what you really should be doing…”

Close-up of grains of sand
Photo by Dave LZ on Unsplash

On the one hand, I’ve certainly made progress in the Forever Novel. But if I just keep fussing with it forever—if, like Milo, I keep moving that pile of sand with a pair of tweezers—then I never have to do anything difficult. I don’t have to try any new ideas, I don’t need to worry about failing, I can just keep futzing around with this story for the rest of my life.

Thus, the $64,000 question. Am I doing the hard work? Or am I avoiding it?

Who knows?

Wise Child

Someone in one of the more obscure online corners I haunt was waxing nostalgic about Monica Furlong’s Wise Child a few months ago. My interest was piqued, since it sounded like something I would have loved as a middle schooler, and luckily I was able to find a copy without much trouble at all.

Cover of Wise Child by Monica Furlong
Image courtesy Alfred A. Knopf

After the death of her grandmother and without other family who can support her, the eponymous nine-year-old protagonist in Wise Child is taken in by Juniper, the village cailleach. Over the course of the book, Juniper helps Wise Child transform from a bit of a brat into someone more considerate, thoughtful and self-sufficient. She also teaches Wise Child the healing arts and some of the basics of magic to prepare her for becoming a witch, what Juniper calls a doran.

The comparison that immediately springs to mind is to Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising. There is certainly a fantastical element but, like Cooper, Furlong keeps the magic grounded in Scottish folklore (or at least appears to, I’m no expert). The prose is a delight to read, even as an adult. Furlong also has an informed understanding of everyday life in medieval Scotland, always specific in her description of foods, textiles, and buildings. This isn’t hand-wavey Ren Faire style Ye Olde Europe.

Unlike The Dark is Rising, and most other fantasy novels, the story in Wise Child is fairly low stakes. The conflict is entirely interpersonal—rivalry between Juniper and Wise Child’s mother, Maeve; the village priest’s animosity towards Juniper. That’s all pretty small potatoes compared to the thousand years of darkness, hurricanes a-blowin’ and rivers overflowin’, cats and dogs living together mass hysteria you usually expect in the genre. This probably accounts for the difference between the distinct characterization of Wise Child versus the sort of bland everyman (everyboy?) of Will Stanton in The Dark is Rising. When you’re coming up against the end of the world, the drama overshadows the characters and flattens them. But for interpersonal conflicts and personal development, you need nuanced, layered characters.

I don’t know how I missed this gem as a child. I would have seen a lot of myself in the awkward and precocious Wise Child, I’m sure. As an adult, it was refreshing to dip my toe back in the kind of middle grade reading that wasn’t trying to stealth market to adults (what’s up Young Adult) but that also didn’t condescend to its younger demographic. Wise Child was exactly the light summer reading I needed in a world that’s going up in flames.

Sisters of the Vast Black

Sisters of the Vast Black was a long-time suggestion from one member of the Austin Feminist Sci-Fi Club and it finally made it to the agenda for our July meeting last Sunday.

Sisters of the Vast Black cover art
Image courtesy Tor

Science fiction is usually pretty critical of religion, especially contemporary established religions like Roman Catholicism, so it’s interesting to see a book take it seriously. Not so much for its cosmology or morality, but for the importance it plays in people’s lives, the good it can inspire them to do, and the soft power it can wield in the name of international (or in this case, interstellar) relations and colonization.

Sisters follows a small spaceship of nuns who find themselves caught up in political intrigue, with a potent biological weapon (and its cure) at stake. Also, their ship is a giant sentient slug who has suddenly imprinted on a mate and needs to change course drastically. And because they’re nuns, of course there’s at least one crisis of faith and a character on the run from a very sinister past.

This was a fun read because the world was so creative and rife with interesting thought experiments, but in the end there were a few too many ideas crammed into the space of one novella. (Rather mentions in her acknowledgments that this started as a short story, which must have been very crowded indeed!) A longer book, or fewer plot threads, would have allowed Rather to give each idea the consideration it deserves and to tie everything together a bit more seamlessly. Maybe the sequel will do just that.

A Waiter in Paris

I’m back from a whirlwind vacation in Paris, my first-ever trip to The Continent proper. I quickly realized that tourism in The City of Light leans a great deal on its literary history: the exclusive, posh Bar Hemingway at the Ritz Paris; the ascension of Les Deux Magots and Café de Flore into sightseeing destinations; the queue to get into Shakespeare and Company. This isn’t a post about my vacation, though. It’s about a book I bought (and read) in Paris. I mention Paris and my vacation because that’s the only reason this book fell into my lap. I was unaware of it, wasn’t looking for it, and wasn’t necessarily intending to ever read it.

Cover of the UK edition of A Waiter in Paris
Image courtesy Monoray

Even though my travel companions and I stopped by Shakespeare and Company shortly after it opened for the day on a Thursday, the store was already crowded. Between the jostles and the bumps of people, and the knowledge that there was likely a queue building outside, it was hard to get into the mindset of leisurely browsing the books. In the stress of the moment I decided to focus on getting something either in French or about Paris, rather than something I could buy any old time. Et voilà: A Waiter in Paris.

Edward Chisholm and his girlfriend move from London to Paris and he decides, for nebulous “I’m going to prove something to myself” reasons, to become a waiter. A Waiter in Paris is his account of an eight-month stint at a fashionable bistro and a book-length expansion on his 2013 piece for the New York Times, “Notes from a Parisian Kitchen.” (Link is to an unpaywalled PDF version for your ease of reading.) Less generously, it’s an overly self-serious version of Rob McKittrick’s 2005 comedy Waiting.

A Waiter in Paris has glowing reviews everywhere. Publishers Weekly, Radio New Zealand…even the 3-star reviews on GoodReads are still faintly positive. Most of them seem spellbound by one, or both, of the following:

  1. Chisholm’s depiction of the labor conditions in a French bistro
  2. Chisholm’s observations of French (or at least Parisian) society

While I won’t fault reviewers who haven’t lived or worked in Paris, I’m concerned that anyone in the Year of Our Lord 2022 could be genuinely shocked and appalled at restaurant labor practices. Did anyone writing these reviews ever work a service job?

Bereft of the one-two punch of “working class tourism” and “cultural observations,” there isn’t much left of interest in A Waiter in Paris. Chisholm’s writing is fluid and readable, certainly, but there are a couple tics he has that border on purple prose (overblown Greek mythological allusions) or just plain “trying too hard” (too many attempts to work “liberté, égalité, fraternité” references into the narrative). He also cites Down and Out in Paris and London as a major influence, which—never remind people in the middle of your own book that there’s a better one they could be reading instead. You’re only going to invite an unfavorable comparison.

The unfavorable comparison in this case is that Chisholm could learn a thing or two from Orwell about narrative distance and detachment. Down and Out leaves plenty of room for the other people Orwell encounters, while A Waiter is essentially The Edward Chisholm Story, with his fellow restaurant staff as background characters. This reaches its peak in a couple episodes that have a very powerful r/ThatHappened vibe. Not that I doubt they happened, but rather that they serve no purpose in the book except as evidence that the other waiters like Chisholm, maybe even see something special in him.

And that’s kind of where it falls apart for me. Underneath the razzle-dazzle, it’s just The Edward Chisholm Story, and Chisholm is, demographically speaking, exactly the kind of guy I went to college with—the kind of guy reading this book to begin with. A kind of guy with which I’m well familiar by this point. The real interesting part is the other people working in the bistro, but at the end of the day we don’t get all that much about any of them.

Of course, eight months isn’t exactly long enough to build enough trust with someone to find out their life story. Especially in a chaotic atmosphere like a restaurant where there’s not necessarily a lot of downtime to make smalltalk, and when you haven’t yet mastered your French, and when people will come and go at random. But whatever part of personal biography you can’t access or divulge, you can make up for by providing larger context and history, even if a nutshell version, and there’s nothing of that in here. What conflict was our Tamil Freedom Fighter actually involved in? What’s the prevailing French attitude towards the Portuguese? Are there historical or social reasons the Maghrebi waiter is so (seemingly hypocritically) dismissive of les africanes? The intersection of politics and history in the kitchen of just about every restaurant in Paris (and probably in most of Europe, if not the world) is a great lens through which to examine colonization and globalization. Missed opportunity, in other words.

At the end of the day, though, it was the writing that put me off A Waiter in Paris more than anything else. I’ll close out my thoughts by returning to that aspect of it, because this was the most damning aspect of all.

There is a sort of arch tone that expats take in their writing, including yours truly. (I’m the guiltiest of all.) On one hand, we make evident our limitations by conceding we don’t speak the language well enough yet, or loudly bemoaning that this or that thing is utterly opaque or impenetrable to us. But on the other hand, we relish the idea of others considering us insiders or experts, since from their perspective that’s exactly what we are, and so we continue to hold forth. Maybe I recognized too much of myself—or projected too much of myself—in the writing and in my imaginary version of Chisholm to really enjoy the book.

In other words: “It’s not you, it’s me.”

The Venus Project

To start with, note that this is a novel heavily inspired by the real-life Venus Project non-profit organization associated with Jacque Fresco, which might be confusing. What I mean by “The Venus Project” here is the English translation of a debut Turkish sci fi novel from Ilker Korkutlar.

Cover of the English edition of The Venus Project by Ilker Korkutlar
Image courtesy Portakal Kitab

As a novel, The Venus Project is amateur and flawed. There’s simply no beating around the bush there. I nearly went on about those flaws at length, but I decided that would be unasked for and unkind. The truth of the matter is, despite all of its problems, I still had a pretty good time (mostly). It’s not a great novel, or even a competent one, but it’s bonkers and different.

There’s a certain class of English language genre author that has developed a steady fan following over the years. Each book they produce panders more and more to that following, rehashing proven formulas and tropes, further insulating their writing and their fans from everything else. For a reader outside of the target demographic, the problem isn’t that they “just don’t get it.” The problem is that there isn’t anything to fail to get—there’s no “there” there. It’s a reading experience that’s bland at its best and insufferable at its worst. It’s the book equivalent of a Marvel movie.

I will take a flawed, amateur novel experience over a Marvel movie book any day of the week. Bring on the crackpot conspiracy theories! Tell me all about graphene! Yes, bees are pretty cool! As long as you’re not advocating for violence or genocide, I’m here for it!

A Desolation Called Peace

This was another pick for the Austin Feminist Sci Fi Book Club, one of the few times we decided on a sequel. I touched on the first book, A Memory Called Empire, in my most recent GoodReads Roundup post. I wish I’d found the time to write a more in-depth review, but so it goes.

Cover of A Desolation Called Peace
Image courtesy Tor

Desolation follows fast on the heels of  MemoryVery fast. Memory focused on intrigue and the politics of empire and national sovereignty; Desolation takes that conflict and then throws it into a first contact scenario. Considering how much of a plot point the alien threat ended up being in Memory, part of me suspects that they started out as one single volume. If this is indeed the case, then I think the surgical separation went well. Memory had a satisfying, clearly demarcated ending. I would have been perfectly satisfied if I never got around to reading Desolation.

But I still loved A Desolation Called Peace.

Desolation takes our ambassador Mahit, freshly returned from the events of Memory, and throws her into acting as a negotiator and xenolinguist alongside her former cultural liaison, friend, and maybe-lover. The alien threat, meanwhile, is a good ol’ fashioned hivemind with an incomprehensible spoken language so hideous it induces vomiting. As if that weren’t enough, tensions are high at Mahit’s home station and she might not be welcome back. Like Memory, there is still plenty of casual bisexuality, intrigue, and lesbians.

Martine left herself an opening in the end of Desolation. Several openings. Maybe that’s job security on her part, or a cash grab on the part of her publisher. I choose to see them as a gift to the reader. Sometimes the vast imaginary potential of a story is better than any follow up.

Fiasco

My third Stanislaw Lem book comes by way of a gift-recommendation from a friend, possibly after he noticed The Cyberiad on my book pile last October.

Cover of Fiasco by Stanislaw Lem
Image courtesy Houghton Mifflin

Calling Fiasco “relentlessly pessimistic” is maybe a bit harsh, but only a bit. It’s a Stanislaw Lem novel, after all. Sometimes I want to talk about a book as soon as I finish it—I think most times I do—but this was a case where I re-read the last paragraph a few times, closed the book, and sat quietly for a while. I appreciate when a book makes me do that.

I think in the end, all I can say is that Fiasco was a more invigorating “first contact” take than Axiom’s End, which I read back in March and which is total garbage. Fiasco was also an unintentionally interesting choice to read right before another Austin Feminist Sci-Fi Book Club pick on the first contact train, A Desolation Called Peace. 

The Sea of Tranquility

The good book/bad book ratio for Austin Feminist Sci Fi Book Club has been a little wonky as of late. I insinuated a lot of very not-nice things about You Sexy Thing earlier; a couple books before that was Moira Grant’s Into The Drowning Deep. We don’t usually get two stinkers in such close company (I don’t think?).

Cover of The Sea of Tranquility y
Image courtesy Knopf

Once bitten, twice shy, so I went into Sea of Tranquility  with no small amount of trepidation. I loved Station Eleven so now the stakes were higher. Would Mandel stick this landing? Or would this book suck and thereby lead to retroactive mixed feelings about a book I loved? (I also want to say that I’m glad I read Station Eleven before a devastating flu-like pandemic happened.)

Good news everybody! It didn’t suck!  There is so much in Sea of Tranquility to make it sci-fi, but as with what I think is the best kind of sci-fi, the point isn’t “story for the sake of cool sci fi ideas” but “using sci-fi ideas to tell an interesting story.” The entire story hinges on 1) a very pernicious and annoying pop philosophy “problem” and 2) time travel, but neither of those are really what the story is about. A lesser author would have exhausted the reader with their preferred solution to The Problem, or at least a detailed explanation of The Problem and its ramifications, while Mandel cuts through the Gordian knot of pontificating by telling a story that arises from The Problem but leaving any specific philosophizing or moralizing out of it.