Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Birthday of the World and Other Stories by Ursula K. Le Guin

I really wanted to start this review off by saying, 'The Birthday of the World and Other Stories is all about sex.'  In the broadest sense it's still true to say as much but it is equally inaccurate to say as the word sex can mean so many things.  So… The Birthday of the World and Other Stories is mostly all about sex.  Now, I'll try to clarify and define a word that has such great surface level transparency.    

Many of the stories in this collection read like narrative anthropological studies written by one not from the society being discussed.  The stories involve unique interactions between men and women and are usually observed by a foreigner. 

The strangest concept for me to wrap my head around was 'sedoretu' a marriage involving four people: one pair of men and one of women, where homo and heterosexual relationships are the norm.  The rules that govern these marriages as laid out in 'Unchosen Love' and 'Mountain Ways' were far more difficult to understand than the pairing of men and women.  Ultimately the concept was so well developed as to detract from the stories being told.  Who can have sex with whom and why, when, and why one person of the four will always be left out from having sex with one other weren't as interesting to me as the narrative that could have been told.  Perhaps as the concept is so foreign Le Guin wanted to be sure to establish clarity.  If so she succeeded, only at the expense of the narrative.  At times these two stories felt like reading rules or law more than a story.  

'Coming of Age in Karhide' was about the first sexual experience of a hermaphroditic person or perhaps 'gender neutral' is more accurate seeing as those on Karhide can choose and morph gender.  This story in particular presented it's ideas with no judging or favoritism.  It was fascinating and addicting in a sensual way that was very hard to describe as I can't exactly say what I was attracted to.  

The title story was nothing spectacular or original, but it had all the good familiar elements and was done extremely well.  A very primitive people on a very sheltered planet believe that God is a man and a woman; brother and sister and that only their hereditary line can perpetuate the lineage of God.  Such a belief is fraught with difficulties particularly when generations have passed and God has trouble reproducing.  A new God is crowned when outsiders arrive at the same time a usurper from within claims to be God.  This story was fun to read and very well done but not the highlight of the collection and probably the least in terms of dealing with sex.

'The Matter of Seggri' isn't merely a good story or the primary reason to buy this book; it's the kind of story that gets you thinking, makes you pause in your reading and leads you to ask questions not only about a fictional world and it's rules that Le Guin has created, but it also makes you do the same about our world that we live in.  

There is a complete segregation of the sexes on Seggri and a very large gender imbalance that heavily favors women.  Boys, being so rare, are prized family jewels until the age of eleven when they are sent off to live in the men's only citadels.  There, they further their status as trophies and seek glory in a dangerous and often gory sport, learn to become phenomenal dancers, and most importantly how to take care of bedroom matters.  Concepts as these are what makes men men on Seggri.  Women do everything else: anything that could be construed as work, business, or an enterprise beyond entertainment is solely relegated for women.  Men remain uneducated and ignorant of everything; they are prizes who develop a reputation and are sold nightly to women who have saved long, hard-earned money for a night of pleasure, or to conceive a child.  

Homosexuality is normal on Seggri in large part due to the seclusion of the men.  While it is seen as normal among the women and usually leads to marriage there are factions for and against it among the men even if both sides practice it.  It's the presentation of this story that makes it work as well as it does: the view from multiple outsiders trying to understand a bizarre foreign culture.  There are multiple reports about life on Seggri in this story; each gives enough to develop its' idea and collectively they paint a broad, detailed picture that indulges the imagination in the most realistic of ways.  Le Guin could set many a story or novel on Seggri.  This is not a happy story.  It's brutal, blunt and lacking anything that resembles sentiment.  It's disturbing and that is why it works.  

This collection isn't all about sex.  It's about gender, identity, and what intercourse means to an individual or to a society.  Not all the stories hit the mark (the closing story 'Paradises Lost' felt particularly cumbersome) but there are a few of those rare wonderful stories--of any length--that make you want to run out and tell people about what you're reading.  Those are the ones I've talked about here.  Now go read them for yourself and see why I feel as I do.   

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Werewolves in Their Youth by Michael Chabon

I have to admit to being an unabashed fan of Michael Chabon.  Who else could write 'Jews with Swords' or 'The Yiddish Policeman's Union'?  Even with I read 'Summerland,' which was probably my least favorite of his novels that I've come across, there was still a strong feeling that no one else cold have written that particular story.  (And really, how else does one explain to a child the inherent evil of the American League's designated hitter?)  Above all else, Chabon has style all his own.

That sense of style is showcased rarely in Werewolves in their Youth, fleetingly displayed and left undeveloped in some places, and--to shocking affect--forsaken in at least one story.  There are very few stories here that seem obviously written by Chabon.  Apparently he had to develop into the writer he is and not everything comes out to be a stunning masterpiece.  And to be absolutely honest, I didn't know that.  

"I had known him as a bulldozer, as a samurai, as an android programmed to kill, as Plastic Man and Titanium Man and Matter-Eater Lad, as a Buick Electra, as a Peterbilt truck, and even, for a week, as the Mackinac Bridge, but it was as a werewolf that Timothy Stokes finally went too far."
That is the opening line to the title story: that, is Michael Chabon.  He is funny--no matter how inappropriate or dark--a hallmark that I've long felt marked quality contemporary, literary fiction as done by the likes of Chabon, Nicole Krauss, Gabriel Garcia-Marquez and others.  At his best, as in the title story, he tends to tell two stories at once.  One in more detail than the other and yet each illuminate and complement the other.  In Werewolves in their Youth we see two school boys, one who wants to be accepted and normal, the other who embraces being different and eagerly anticipates the thought of a special school and riding a different bus than all the other children.  Their story is against parents in the beginning stages of divorce explaining and trying to understand their differences, flirting with reconciliation, and ultimately coming to terms with all that separates them.    
House Hunting is a story about a realtor showing a home to a couple that probably shouldn't be together in the first place.  As we see the couple growing together, all in the course of the day and being shown one house, we also see that the realtor has some very strong personal connections to this particular house and it's current owner.  Chabon's 'tell two stories at once' mechanic works brilliantly and sometimes is so subtle as to go undetected.  
Son of the Wolfman is perhaps the most powerful and unfulfilling.  A ten-year married couple have been actively trying to get pregnant for five years with the assistance of every fertility drug they can afford.  As the wife decides to keep a baby beget by a rapist, she does so at the expense of her husband.  How a story with that premise can fall flat is beyond me.  While there was drive and tension aplenty the ending left me feeling grossly underwhelmed, if not indifferent.    
The collection's final inclusion is also the most interesting.  It's a horror story and a damned fine one at that.  Chabon, forever in love with flirting across genre lines, can drop his love of ornate descriptions and humor to scare you more than a little bit.  In The Black Mill works on all levels but it's inclusion in this particular collection is startling for more reasons than just the scary factor.  It's the only story of it's kind in this collection and it feels a bit lost.  I read it and kept waiting to laugh at something, to smile, or to marvel at his use of language.  By the time I figured out what was happening in the story I was too caught up in the events to want for any of the above, but in no way did this story fit in with the rest of the collection.  
The others are all fine writing if not anything spectacular.  There is nothing here to rival S Angel, nor is the collection as strong as A Model World and Other Stories.  That is to say, even if Chabon should be slightly off his game he is still stylishly amazing and wholly worth reading.  

Monday, October 7, 2013

Month in Review

Better late than never.  September was not a very strong reading month for me.  It took me a long time to get through The Last of the Wine, which I had started the previous month, even if I did enjoy it.  September's reading was essentially me picking up what was left over from August.

I finished Renault, and worked further into two short story collections that I'm still working on.  I've been reading a lot, with not a lot to show.  I've also fallen into a blogging lethargy that I hope to remedy by leaving comments for the previously mentioned story collections: they are both really good, one of them has been amazing so far.

Not that my TBR pile is in anyway diminishing but I did do a lot of book buying in September and that is always fun.  I picked up a couple of books I'd already read and wanted to own; three books of poetry, which I'm steadily gaining confidence in both reading, and finding accessible narrative poets that I actually enjoy reading; the next book in the Earthsea series, Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny; Fevre Dream by George Martin; Ancient Light for John Banville; How to Paint a Dead Man by Sarah Hall; and Fairy Tale, by Alice Thomas Ellis.   .

I'm very excited about all of these but I'm not willing to make any predictions about what is going to get read when.

October also means the end of baseball season, which is sad, but the Braves are still playing (if, seemingly, only for a little while longer).  It's also getting cold and considering we never had a summer, I'm not happy about that.  These two events coinciding should mean more reading, so check back regularly for frequent updates in regards to my awesomeness.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

The Last of the Wine by Mary Renault

This bit of commentary has been a long time coming.  The wait is primarily due to the fact that it took me forever and a day to get through the book.  While reading, I was engrossed and truly enjoying every word that went by and whatever story was being told, but when I was finished reading, there was absolutely nothing that compelled me to come back and read more.  In this regard, The Last of the Wine reminded me a lot of the book that led me to it: Among Others.  

The setting is Ancient Greece near the close of the Peloponnesian War and the story follows Alexias from his birth until he achieves the vague outlines that define 'manhood.'  There's eternal fighting, and lots of relationships developed.  Reading The Last of the Wine it's easy to see that the author loved the time period and certainly did her homework in conveying Greece to the reader.

As this is the first book by Renault I've read, I can't say whether or not her writing style was a bit stiff or if it merely felt dated or both.  (The book is 57 years old.)  It's emotionally sterile  and more of historical presentation of fact--which certainly isn't bad--but does make for some very dense reading at more than four-hundred pages.

Renault picked a rich time frame to set her story and as such there are a wealth of names the reader is likely to have some level of familiarity with: Xenophon, Sokcrates, Plato, Phaedo, and Lysander to name a few.  However, for me, there was no greater relationship than Alexias' interaction with his unyieldingly badass, hard-as-nails father.  Second in effect to the father son relationship was Alexias' relationship with Lysis, a slightly older Athenian of an outstanding family who has taken a serious liking to the former.  

Which brings me to the most alluring aspect of the book: Renault researched and wrote a story, she finished and decided her efforts were good, she then dunked it in, if not outright homoeroticism, then certainly a heavy coat sensual sauce. 

Alexias himself encompasses all ambiguity of this issue.  He's a somewhat ugly child who grows into being what can only be considered the hottest thing under the sun: it become clear early on that everyone who isn't family wants a piece of him.  Perhaps it's only my curiosity (but more likely the fact that Alexias' relationships were the only point offered for a reader to make an emotional connection) but I really wanted to know, 'Why does everyone want a piece of Alexias?'  What are they going to do with him?  Are they only interested in dating and holding hands in the park (which essentially happened)?  Are they trying to score a one-nighter or a long term marriage kind of thing?  None of my curiosity was satisfied and rightfully so: we don't know the specifics of pederastic relationships at that time and I thought it in the story's best interest to not make up 'supposed history.'  

My only problem with the book was a lack of overall, unifying plot.  While the story didn't feel like anecdotes it also never felt like it was building to a specific ending.  Thus my previous comment about enjoying it while I was reading but finding it hard to come back to. 

For me The Last of the Wine is a book I read and felt had no great faults: it takes you away and firmly establishes you in a different far off world, and touches on just about all the elements that make a story great.  It's odd, because it's a book I'd readily recommend to anyone, it just wasn't for me.  

For a second opinion of the same book, check out what Maria has to say.