Last Week’s Reading: January 22-28


January 22-28, 2017: A sci-fi classic, a new feminist classic, vignettes in verse,  a much-awarded novel worth the hype, and thirty-year-old poetry that’s still fresh.

We Should All Be Feminists, by Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie: The perfect primer on feminism, eloquent and brief. This would make an excellent gift for high school students in need of a brief introduction to the concept and will rally, I think, those who hesitate to call themselves feminists.

The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. Le Guin: I’ve had this 1969 sci-fi classic  on my shelves for twenty years, but I’m rather glad I didn’t read it at twelve. Though short—my mass-market paperback is 300 pages—it’s dense, complicated, and incredibly intelligent. Genly Ai is an envoy from a group of planets (think the Federation, but more abstract) assigned to persuade the inhabitants of the planet Gethen (translated, it means Winter–it’s essentially a populated Hoth) to join the Ekumen. Gethenians have a complicated system of etiquette and honor called shifgrethor, but even more confounding for Ai is their lacked of fixed sexuality; they are neither male nor female (all characters are called “he,” a convention Ann Leckie reverses in the excellent Ancillary Justice). The world-building is sublime, the pace of revelation superb–we struggle to understand this culture as Genly does, and in the process Ms. Le Guin asks us to think deeply about exploration, friendship, and patriotism. Highly recommended.

Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish, by David Rakoff: The world lost a funny, sad voice when David Rakoff died in 2012 at the age of 47. If you loved his essay collection Fraud (I did), you’ll find this book quite different–it’s a short novel made of vignettes in verse. It’s grim and witty at the same time, a catalogue of cruelties and kindnesses and most of all, I think, our vulnerabilities. Those looking for an unusual reading experience should pick it up.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Díaz: Deserves every accolade it’s received, and then some. I put off reading this novel because I have limited patience for the male bildungsroman, but my expectations were confounded. Oscar is lovable and tragic, but the story doesn’t belong to him alone; Mr. Díaz takes long excursions into the backgrounds of his mother and sister, giving the book a roundedness and depth I didn’t anticipate. Yunior, the narrator and sometime authorial-alter-ego, is a fantastic narrator, steeped in nerd culture, frenetic, profane and and so full of life that it seems he’s physically propelling words across the page (even in the footnotes). I loved, loved, loved this novel.

To The Quick, by Heather McHugh: Heather McHugh’s wordplay (see “Etymological Dirge”) is fantastic, almost dizzying. This 1987 collection is beautiful and smart and tough. These poems will cut you to the quick. Need proof? Just read “The Amenities.” 

17 thoughts on “Last Week’s Reading: January 22-28

  1. I’ve long meant to read Oscar Wao. The Le Guin I started some years back but couldn’t make my way into; I’ll have to try again, as it’s meant to be a perfect sci-fi book for people who don’t ordinarily read sci-fi.

    • No, I think this month was an anomaly. (1) A bunch of the books I read were quite short. (2) I’ve got a new system for getting things done, and oddly, it’s freed up more time to read and (3) Not pressuring myself to write a full review for every book I read means that I–surprise–have more time for reading. That said, I’d be very surprised if this pace continues.

  2. You’ve convinced me on Oscar Wao. I think I’ve had the same reservations about it as you, but it sounds like I need to go ahead and read it! I think I own it, actually, but I’m not sure – will have to go hunting around. 🙂

  3. I haven’t read that McHugh collection, but I loved Upgraded to Serious (2009). Have you read The Dispossessed? I’ve been thinking of rereading TLHoD, because it used to be my fave of ULG’s, but then The Dispossessed claimed that title. Perhaps they’re simply both favourites!

      • *nods excitedly* She was one of my first MRE authors (MustReadEverything), children’s and stories and non-fiction too (which, at one time, were dividing lines for me as a reader, only novels would do).

  4. I read The Left Hand of Darkness years ago, and I still think it’s the best sci fi I ever read. I also enjoyed Oscar Wao, mostly for the history of the Domenican Republic.

  5. I think my expectations were so off base for We Should All Be Feminists. They way you describe it, yes. Good for beginners, doubters, teenagers… I was expecting a lot more and was let down hard.

    PS please tell me about your system, I’m a productivity geek 🙂

    • My system is a planner–not the passion planner, but one that was pricey enough that I’d feel guilty if I didn’t use it. I like the layout and goal-setting checklists and just ignore all the “follow your dreams and journal your hopes” mumbo jumbo.

  6. A very good week of reading! Lots of thought-provoking books in there too. I really liked We Should All Be Feminists, so straight and to the point and said with feeling and compassion.

  7. Hey hey, we’re reading twins! I just finished The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. I maybe liked it less than you — I have run the hell out of patience with stories about nerds who are super desperate to get laid — but the writing was amazing and I learned ever so much more about the Dominican Republic than I have known before.

    • I wasn’t expecting to learn so much about the DR, and I’m glad I did! I read In the Time of the Butterflies in college but I didn’t have enough background to fully appreciate it, I think.

  8. Oscar Wao was great; so’s your review! If you’re interested in reading more Diaz, check out “Drown”. It’s his first published work, a collection of short stories, and it’s amazing. Thanks again for the read!

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