I must have been 13 or 14 when I first tried reading The Dispossessed, maybe a bit older, and it just couldn’t stick. I had this problem with Le Guin generally—A Wizard of Earthsea was on a semi-required reading list for school a few years before I tried to tackle The Dispossessed, but again I couldn’t seem to get into it. Since then I just wrote Le Guin off as one of the great and admirable giants of science fiction who just wasn’t for me.
Fast forward to 2017, and I’m getting ready to visit one of my best friends; my visit will coincide with the August meeting of his feminist science fiction book club. The book under discussion is Karen Memory, but their last book was The Dispossessed and my host let me know that they’ll probably be discussing that one too, because most people couldn’t make the last meeting and there was still marrow to be sucked from the bones. So to speak.
I picked up Karen Memory at SF Bokhandlen but decided to give The Dispossessed another go. It seems like I’m a better reader now than I was at age 14, because I finished this one in record time!
Author: Ursula K. Le Guin
My GoodReads rating: 4 stars
Average GoodReads rating: 4.18 stars
Language scaling: C1+
Plot summary: Two hundred years ago, a group of idealistic anarchists left the planet Urras to start a colony on the moon. Now, a physicist named Shevek is the first man from Anarres to travel to Urras, now fraught with competing nation states and competing political philosophies, to continue his research into Simultaneity.
Recommended audience: Science fiction fans; political theory junkies
In-depth thoughts: First of all, I’m proud of myself for finishing a book I abandoned years ago. My own book club tackled The Invisible Bridge for April? May? and despite picking at it for two months I just couldn’t get into it. I finally returned it to the library well past its due date, unfinished, acknowledging that not being able to finish this book was keeping me from others I might enjoy more.
Struggling with The Invisible Bridge slowed down my reading and I went from being 5 books ahead of my GoodReads goal to being a book behind. Madonna in a Fur Coat was the shot in the arm I needed to get back to reading again, and The Dispossessed was the self-esteem boost I needed after the first “did not finish” I’ve had in a long, long while.
While I can see why teenage me couldn’t get into The Dispossessed, adult me really liked it. I liked the little grammatical nuances of Pravic (like the total absence of possessive pronouns), I liked the world-building, I liked how Urras was a whole planet full of nations at cross-purposes instead of a single monoculture. (Planets in science fiction are almost always analogues for countries, and I hate that. Just look at how diverse and fractious and not-united Earth is!) I liked how neither Urras nor Anarres were all-good or all-bad, but both oppressive and less than ideal in their own way, though maybe that’s pessimism on Le Guin’s part.
I have two big shout-outs/thanks in this post. First, for Adam over at Memento Mori. As soon as he mentioned No-No Boy in one of his videos, I realized that I had never read anything about the Japanese internment camps. I think we had a copy of Baseball Saved Us somewhere in the house, but I want to say it was my brother’s (baseball fan that he is) and not mine. I might have never even read it and just remember the cover.
The second shout-out and thanks go to my friend Henny (of Dirt Nap Podcast fame), who was kind enough send me a huge dump of ebooks from my Goodreads “to-read” shelf, including . . . No-No Boy!
Author: John Okada
Aside: the story of John Okada, the author, is kind of tragic. No-No Boy is his only novel. It was published in 1957 to a lukewarm reception at best, and so he more or less left the writing world for the rest of his short life. He died in the early 70s of a heart attack, and while he was working on another novel at the time, the documents are lost to us so it’s hard to tell if he just had notes, or if he had a completed draft, or if he had something almost completely finished. Only a couple of years after his untimely death, No-No Boy was sort of rediscovered and quickly attained the recognition and praise it rightly deserved.
My GoodReads rating: 5 stars
Average GoodReads rating: 3.73 stars
Language scaling: B2+
Plot summary:No-No Boy is the story of Ichiro Yamada, a no-no boy who comes back to his life in Seattle after his prison sentence. His mother is proud of him for being a no-no boy; she thinks Japan actually won the war, and that soon she and other loyal Japanese will get to go back. Others are, unsurprisingly, furious with Ichiro, white and Nisei alike. Eventually Ichiro runs into Kenji, a fellow Nisei and a veteran who lost his leg in the European theater and who is only getting more and more ill. Kenji seems to understand Ichiro, at least better than anyone else does, and the two spend a lot of time together as Ichiro tries to figure out his new place in the world.
Content warning: Okada writes about the racial tensions going in post-WWII America, so dialogue can include terms that have since fallen out of favor (or flat-out racial slurs).
Recommended audience: Those interested in post-WWII American history or teaching/studying it in school; those interested in Asian-American authors; those who enjoyed George Takei’s stage show Allegiance.
In-depth thoughts: The title No-No Boy refers to the loyalty questionnaire Nisei Americans (American-born Japanese) were required to answer, as a de facto test of patriotism/”Americanness.” The last two were real humdingers:
Question 27: Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States on combat duty, wherever ordered?
Question 28: Will you swear unqualified allegiances to the United States of America and faithfully defend the United States from any and all attack by foreign or domestic forces, and forswear any form of allegiance or obedience to the Japanese emperor, or other foreign government, power or organization?
Thousands of people answered “no” to both questions for a variety of reasons: misunderstanding the terminology, resentment at being asked to swear loyalty and serve in the armed forces of a nation that had ripped them out of their homes and sent them to detention centers, fears that they would be deported to Japan regardless and that a “yes” would come back to haunt them, etc. They became known as “no-nos” or “no-no boys” and served time in prison for their answers. Okada was not one of them, but the protagonist of his novel is.
There are a handful of books I review here that I really hope people will go out and read (if they haven’t already). Usually it’s because they’re really good, but this is one I think we should read because it’s important. Well, and it’s also really good and worth reading regardless—Okada takes the stream of consciousness style that really came to a head with the Beats and makes it his own. Here’s a quote from early on the in the novel, when Ichiro decides to pay a visit to the university where he was studying before the internment camps and then prison:
Not until the bus had traversed the business district and pointed itself toward the northeast did he realize that he was on the same bus which he used to take every morning as a university student. There had been such a time and he vividly brought to mind, with a hunger that he would never lose, the weighty volumes which he had carried against his side that the cloth of his pants became thin and frayed, and the sandwiches in a brown grocery bag and the slide rule with the leather case which hung from his belt like the sword of learning which it was, for he was going to become an engineer and it had not mattered that Japan would soon be at war with America. To be a student in America was a wonderful thing. To be a student in America studying engineering was a beautiful life. That, in itself, was worth defending from anyone and anything which dared to threaten it with change or extinction. Where was the slide rule, he asked himself, where was the shaft of exacting and thrilling discovery when I need it most? If only I had pictured it and felt it in my hands, I might well have made the right decision, for the seeing and feeling of it would have pushed out the bitterness with the greenness of the grass on the campus and the hardness of the chairs in the airy classrooms with the blackboards stretched wall-to-wall behind the professor, and the books and the sandwiches and the bus rides coming and going. I would have gone into the army for that and I would have shot and killed, and shot and killed some more, because I was happy when I was a student with the finely calculated white sword at my side. But I did not remember or I could not remember because, when one is born in America and learning to love it more and more every day without thinking it, it is not an easy thing to discover suddenly that being American is a terribly incomplete thing if one’s face is not white and one’s parents are Japanese of the country Japan which attacked America. It is like being pulled asunder by a whirling tornado and one does not think of a slide rule though that may be the thing which will save one.
Where (for me) novels like On the Road became self-indulgent and navel-gazey, No-No Boy balances these deep dives with action and spreads them among multiple characters. We get to know Ichiro quite well, but we also spend time in the heads of the people around him, who have different perspectives, experiences, and opinions.
I hope that whet your appetite! If you’ve read No-No Boy, I’m curious about what you think. If not (or even if you have, I guess), what are some other under-read and underappreciated classics that you think should be more famous? Why?
In-depth thoughts: Teachers wishing to address prejudice and The Holocaust could do worse than to include Otto and the Flying Twins in the curriculum.
On the surface, it’s a whimsical fantasy story about an evil queen (though in an updated form of an evil councilwoman) trying to eradicate magic from the city, and the young boy and his magical friends who stop her. But dig a little deeper and it’s hard to deny the parallels with pre-World War II Germany: the “magicos” are declared inferior and a threat to the city’s well-being, relegated to ghettos or sent to work in moonstone mines.
It’s hard to strike a balance between light whimsy and serious hardship, and my only complaint with the book is that Haptie never finds a good balance; despite some serious moments, the mood tilts very heavily towards “fun fantasy.” Rather than address the very real problem that hatred and prejudice is built up over lifetimes and generations, Haptie compresses what was probably two or three centuries of anti-Semitic sentiment that contributed to the Holocaust into just a couple of years and the flimsiest of pretenses—essentially, one individual’s personal grudge. (And greed, but arguably it’s something like greed that drives people to blame The Other for economic woes, so that’s not so unrealistic after all.)
But it’s a fantasy book for middle grade readers, not Holocaust scholarship. I realize this is a very high-level nitpick, and I’m willing to overlook it because everything else about the book was delightful.
Anyone familiar with YA and middle grade tropes will see some of them refreshingly subverted or avoided. The titular Otto isn’t The Chosen One; that’s actually his dad, Albert who does much of the heroics (if off-screen). Otto is, of course, gifted with what everyone considers The Best Power Ever, but it’s well-balanced: neither over-powerful enough to render his friends useless, nor so under-powered that we wonder why anyone values such a power in the first place.
When his mom finds out that Albert hid his Karmidee heritage from her, she lashes out at him and spends most of the rest of the book angry at him, for ugly reasons (internalized prejudice) as well as respectable ones (building a life with someone only to find out they’ve lied about a very important part of themselves is bound to be a shocker). It’s a response that feels very human, especially because she balances it with protecting her family. There’s nothing worse than conflict driven by one or more parties being willfully stupid. Instead, Dolores does what she can to protect her undeniably magical family and keeps her frustration with Albert separate.
Otto’s obligatory female sidekick, Mab, isn’t presented as a love interest, which is refreshing—but this might be due to the target audience (the story feels and reads much more middle grade than YA). She’s not entirely useful, it feels like, except to explain things to Otto (and by extension, the reader).
The language in this book is something to behold. There is an air of genuine whimsy in this that I found lacking in Harry Potter. (Well, either lacking or totally oppressive.) Normal Police, widges, dammerung, an Impossible List . . . Haptie takes well-worn fantasy tropes and adds her own unique spin to them.
Otto and the Flying Twins is the first in a trilogy of books. I get the impression that they were meant to be a longer series, but seeing as the last one was published in 2006, I think it’s safe to say that the series stops at three books. If you can find it, get it. Otto and the Flying Twins is a great example of middle grade fantasy at its finest. More than that, it’s a great jumping-off point to discuss prejudice and resistance—topics that are going to be quite relevant for the next few years.
I knew about the radium girls in the vaguest of senses thanks to an offhand mention in The Radioactive Boy Scout, a book I read a few years ago.Silverstein mentions that scores of workers (women, mostly) in the dial-painting factories became ill and even died from their work, but since that’s largely a footnote in the story of David Hahn, Silverstein doesn’t go into much detail about it. I didn’t think about it any further until last year, when I saw that an available book on NetGalley was Kate Moore’s The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women, adapted from and inspired by Melanie March’s play These Shining Lives.
Author: Kate Moore
My GoodReads rating: 5 stars
Average Goodreads rating: 4.35 stars
Language scaling: B2/C1+
Recommended audience: Readers interested in the early 20th century American labor movement, women’s history, or the history of radium and radioactivity.
Content warning: While it’s only brief parts of the book, Moore does not mince words to describe the effects of radium poisoning on the women in question.
In-depth thoughts: I wavered between 4 and 5 stars for this book. The story is harrowing and written well overall, but at some points all of the information becomes more overwhelming than anything else. Moore also has a tic of spending a lot of time on the physical description of almost everyone involved; as someone who relates strongly to descriptions of aphantasia, it’s not surprising that I would not find detailed descriptions of people’s appearances compelling. Other readers will no doubt appreciate Moore’s dedication to making these stories as real as possible. Finally, the Kindle version had some display and formatting errors, mostly based around the small-caps font used for the newspaper headlines and photos (there weren’t any).
In the end I decided on 5 stars because I think my issues were with the formatting rather than the content, and because I think everyone should read this book.
I have to admit, I was not entirely prepared for what I read. I know enough about radiation poisoning to know that the women employed in these factories suffered, and suffered a lot. That’s a biological reality I knew going in. It was how steadfastly the companies refused to acknowledge any wrongdoing that was the most shocking and the most viscerally upsetting. Their legal battles dragged on for years—over a decade. It’s one thing to lose an arm or the use of your legs and have a workman’s comp case take a few years. It’s another thing for the case to go on for 13 years when you’re dying of cancer.
The radium corporations insisted that the sick, dying, and dead women were already in poor health when they started work; they refused to release medical examination records; they insisted that the cause of death in a few cases was syphilis, not radium poisoning. They claimed in one case that radium was a poison and therefore not covered by existing workman’s compensation laws; after the law was changed to include poison, they turned around in another case and claimed that radium wasn’t poisonous at all.
People talking about #resisting in this weird new era we live in also talk about the importance of surrounding yourself with stories of people being courageous and doing the right thing. I think that makes The Radium Girls a book we should all be reading. It serves as both an inspiration and a warning.
Nella Larsen’s Passing was a selection for my online book club. The two women who run it have a knack for finding classics that, despite my academic background, I seemed to have skipped over. Passing is one of those classics.
Author: Nessa Larsen
My GoodReads rating: 4 stars
Average GoodReads rating: 3.8 stars
Language scaling: B2+
Recommended audience: Thriller fans; readers interested in Harlem Renaissance literature
Plot summary: Irene Redfield and her high school classmate Clare Kendry are both mixed race; Irene is “out” (if I can borrow the term) as a woman of color, living a life in Harlem with a black husband and black children, while Clare is currently “passing” (as in, passing for white) within white society—a big deal in 1927. A chance encounter brings Clare back into Irene’s life after years apart, throwing both of their lives into disarray. One thing leads to another, until events reach their tragic, if inevitable, conclusion.
In-depth thoughts: Much of the tension is built on concepts of race and passing that I don’t think would be quite as relevant today. Not to say that racism is no longer a problem; just that society’s definition of “white” has broadened. Someone fitting Clare Kendry’s description—pale, blonde, and brown-eyed—would be overwhelmingly accepted and read as white today, outside of maybe a few fringe neo-Nazi groups. But in the book, the old “one drop” rule is still in effect, and Clare’s worry that her “true identity” as a woman of color might be revealed to her white husband is constantly hanging over her head. Such a discrepancy in norms says a lot about an America still in living memory.
Of course, other elements of tension in the story are more timeless: secret pasts, secrets and trust within relationships, motherhood, the lot of women in society, the limits of what we can know about others. Passing is a thriller but it’s also a character study. While some of the specific worries about race may belong to another time, the suspense and the breakneck speed feel very modern.
Finally, the reviews I post on my personal blog and the ones I post here are in sync! (Or is that in synch?) This should keep book posts moving at a much more regular pace. Maybe I’ll move to updating three times a week. Who knows?
The Moviegoer is a selection from TIME Magazine’s “Top 100 Novels of All TIME” list, which is a reading project I’ve had since around 2009. I have five books left to finish the list.
Author: Walker Percy
My GoodReads rating: 3 stars
Average GoodReads rating: 3.7 stars
Language scaling: B2+
Recommended audience: Readers interested in New Orleans, the American South, and Americana/Americana literature; readers who feel directionless and lost
In-depth thoughts:The Moviegoer wasn’t a book for me, but I can understand why others would relate to it. It’s not the most gripping story, and I wouldn’t recommend it straight off the bat for EFL students who want to dip their toes into English literature. But those who have already ventured into the field might like it. It periodically draws on some very America-specific pop culture touch points; as you can guess from the title, the story’s narrator spends a fair amount of time watching and thinking about movies, all of which date back to the Golden Age of Hollywood. Towards the end of the story, there are also references to New Orleans’ Mardi Gras celebrations and traditions, which might be unfamiliar to some readers. Still, none of these references are essential to the plot. Overall, a solid, introspective read.
The posts here have been very book-heavy recently. While I don’t feel I should, exactly, apologize for that, I feel like I should at least explain it. I did a surprise burst of reading at the end of last year and have been trying to get on top of it now so that my posts for the rest of the year won’t just be catch-up or weirdly untimely (seems a bit pointless to have a GoodReads round-up post in March). The alternative is to not feature my reading here at all, but 1) I feel that my reading, both for fun and for professionalism, is relevant to what I do and 2) I like talking about books.
In that vein, here is the first book I finished in 2017.
Author: David Foster Wallace
My GoodReads rating: 4 stars
Average GoodReads rating: 3.85 stars
Language scaling: C1+
Recommended audience: Pop culture junkies, word aficionados, recovering pedants, English nerds
In-depth thoughts: I received this book as part of my book club’s end-of-year book swap, which made for a very pleasant surprise in the mail! Anyone who pokes around my GoodReads profile can see right away that David Foster Wallace is one of my favorite writers—a friend recommended him to me as we both (that is: both Wallace and I) were English/philosophy double majors in college, which I guess is a flimsy reason to like an author; presumably this friend also recommended Wallace because of his brilliant writing, which is a much more solid reason to like an author. Somehow, despite my near-obsession, I never got around to buying this posthumous collection for myself (or even learning of its existence).
More Flesh Than Not is probably more appropriate for English lovers than it is for English students. One can be both, of course, but you really need a borderline unhealthy love for the language to enjoy Wallace’s dense, complex, and sometimes highly stylized writing. Professional language regulators (that is to say: editors, teachers, etc.) might find “Twenty-Four Word Notes” of interest, where Wallace lets his inner pedant have full rein. “The Nature of the Fun” offers solace and something like comfort (maybe) to fellow writers. And anyone who loves reading—like maybe chronically, dysfunctionally, really really loves—will surely appreciate Wallace’s ability to get to the heart of a book in his reviews and to give works the serious look they deserve, from short-form reviews (“Mr. Cogito” and “Overlooked: Five direly underappreciated U.S. Novels >1960”) to in-depth and quite frankly multidisciplinary framings (“The Empty Plenum: David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress” and “Rhetoric and the Math Melodrama”), and anything in between (“Borges On the Couch” and “The Best of the Prose Poem.”)
Finally, this collection uses selections from Wallace’s own word list (assembled while he was working on the Oxford English dictionary) as something like illustrations? section breaks? between each essay. Whether you find that charming or a gimmick depends on taste, I suppose. I fall in the former camp. There’s something very intimate and personal about a glimpse into the words that someone found fascinating, confusing, or anything else necessitating a dictionary consultation. It’s an appropriate touch and I appreciate it.
I have a tendency to avoid really popular books. This is something I suppose I should change if I ever become a full-time gymnasium English teacher, but for now I read for enjoyment and for professional development. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian definitely qualifies as “really popular.” But once in a while all of the hype and praise makes me curious, so when I saw it in the teen section of my local library, I knew that I had to see if it was any good.
Author: Sherman Alexie
My GoodReads rating: 4 stars
Average GoodReads rating: 4.11 stars
Language scaling: B1+
Plot summary: Junior tells the story of his first year at an all-white high school outside the Spokane reservation, complete with cartoon illustrations.
Recommended audience: This is marketed as a young adult book, but I think adults can enjoy it as much as teenagers.
In-depth thoughts: My only previous experience with Sherman Alexie was “This is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona” and the movie Smoke Signals. It was homework for my freshman year creative writing workshop. Our assignment was to read the story, watch the movie, and then write about the differences between the two. I don’t remember much about either the story or the movie except that I wasn’t particularly blown away by either of them. That’s probably part of why I put off reading Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian for so long.
Whatever was distant, disconnected, and impersonal for me in “This is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona” and Smoke Signals was immediate and personal for me in Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Maybe it has something to do with the universality of high school experience? Even if I’ve never been the only Native student in a white, wealthy high school, I’ve often felt like the only something in high school. Maybe it was Junior’s distinctive voice. Maybe it was just my mood. Whatever.
The illustrations are a nice touch. It has something of a Diary of a Wimpy Kid feel, though not nearly so heavy on the “attempting to look like an actual diary” aspect.
Language scaling: High intermediate and above (B2+)
Plot summary: In 2019, humans finally receive and decode extraterrestrial messages. The aliens aren’t too far away, so The Society of Jesus sends an expedition to meet them. Things do not go as planned.
Recommended audience: Science fiction fans who are also interested in the humanities, particularly comparative religion, anthropology, and/or linguistics.
Content warning: Sexual assault; violence against children
In-depth thoughts: What Russell does best in The Sparrow is world building. She’s clearly given a lot of thought to both of the distant alien races, in terms of evolutionary biology as well as culture. World building is something I’m usually very picky about, so praise from Caesar is praise, indeed.
As far back as 1996, Russell also had a pretty good sense of what sort of technology we would have in 2019. We might not be mining asteroids in three years, let alone going on interstellar missions, but I think (and hope!) we’ll be surprised by what SpaceX will accomplish. Meanwhile, in 2016, tablets are already ubiquitous. How prescient!
That said, there were some flaws. Like a lot of science fiction, the characterization suffered a bit. Many of them are only vaguely described; others who are more fully fleshed out have significantly out-of-character moments. This would be okay, except that some of those moments are important plot points. Whenever that happens in a book, it always feel like the author is shoehorning a character into a certain role rather than letting the story develop naturally. There are a couple of plot points that I felt were glossed over, though these are apparently addressed in the sequel, Children of God.
Overall, I enjoyed it and I appreciate the thought and work that Russell clearly put into it. I would definitely recommend this for any science fiction fan, though with the warning that towards the end, things get quite brutal.
Plot summary: In Victorian England, Charles Smithson and Ernestina Freeman are engaged to be married. While visiting Ernestina in the town of Lyme Regis, Charles meets and eventually falls in love with the tragic Sarah Woodruff, known around the village as “The French Lieutenant’s Woman.”
Recommended audience: Hardcore English literature fans
In-depth thoughts:The French Lieutenant’s Woman is the first book I’m discussing here to be part of my larger goal of conquering TIME magazine’s list of the Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century. I’m almost done, but it’s taken quite a while. There have been a lot of snags and pauses along the way; The French Lieutenant’s Woman is my first foray into the list after a lengthy dry spell.
I knew nothing about the book going into it. Considering that John Fowles is listed among Great Britain’s top 50 writers, that makes me maybe one of the worst English majors ever, but so it is. That’s exactly why I decided to tackle the TIME Top 100 Novels list: to fill in the gaps of my literary education. (English literature, at any rate.)
Image courtesy Jonathan Cape/Random House
Where to start with this book? Well, the writing is complex and dense. This is not a complaint; it’s good to stretch the little gray cells once in a while, and once you accustom yourself to the faux-Victorian style of the novel things continue at a relatively snappy pace. But it’s still work, and for so much work one expects some kind of reward.
By “reward,” I don’t mean a good or at least satisfying ending, plot-wise; I mean the entire reading experience. Contrast The French Lieutenant’s Woman with a book it inspired: A. S. Byatt’s Possession. On the surface, the plot isn’t too terribly exciting. What’s commendable about Possession is Byatt’s thorough commitment to her fictional poets and her parallel narrative structure. All told, Possession includes: a modern-day narrative; a Victorian narrative; considerable personal correspondence from a variety of fictional Victorians; journal entries from a Victorian-era French teenager; and a small corpus of highly formalized poetry for the two aforementioned fictional poets. That is some dedication to the craft.
The French Lieutenant’s Woman lacks any such dedication, particularly in the variety of viewpoints. The narrative chugs along in a consistent third person that is sometimes quite close and other times quite distant, with only a few winks and nods at the fourth wall to make it feel at all modern. We spend exactly zero time with Sarah Woodruff, the titular character. Instead, we spend most of the time with Charles. Sometimes we leave Charles to get to know other male characters, such as the Irish doctor or Charles’s servant, Sam, but most of the time we’re with Charles. Women are treated even more distantly, and no woman is treated more distantly than Sarah. Because of this, everything else falls apart. Without the privilege of an interior monologue, Sarah remains nothing more than the tired trope of “hysterical attention whore” and the entire novel feels much staler and older than its 1969 publication date.
The bell cannot be unrung; the book cannot be unread. Fowles’s The Magus sounds like it might be more my cup of tea, but other than that I won’t be coming back to this author anytime soon. Not even Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons can save this one for me.