The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin

I finished this a while ago, at the beginning of a recent trip and have neglected blogging about it. For some reason, I remembered The Dispossessed as a long, difficult, not particularly enjoyable read. It was not! I liked it! And there were many details I had no recollection of. With more experience and less idealism than when I first read it in my twenties, the ambiguity of the situation appealed to me this time.

It’s interesting, however, that from the distance of just a couple of weeks, I once again don’t remember many of the details.  In that sense, my original response stands, that this is very much a novel of ideas for me, and much less so about character or plot.

Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

Light is the left hand of darkness,
and darkness the right hand of light.
Two are one, life and death, lying
together like lovers in kemmer,
like hands joined together,
like the end and the way.

Ursula Le Guin’s recent death has set me on a rereading journey (and a reading journey: there’s still plenty of her work I’ve never read). I decided to start with Left Hand of Darkness, and it was fascinating to reread it. It stands up to the passage of time, and yet has not aged well. It is still a suspenseful tale, and it proposes thought experiments that are still relevant today. But the gender norms that the terran diplomat Genly Ai expresses (written in 1969 and projected into some unstated but future time) are already out of date. Conceptions not only of roles but also of gender identity have changed in major ways that make parts of the narrative distracting.

This reread made me wonder why movies and television shows are routinely rebooted or redone but books rarely are (with the exception of parodies or pastiches that combine classic books with wildly different genre tropes). I’d really love to see a progressive, visionary, feminist author retell this story today.

My perspective on the two main characters has shifted since I first read the novel. The protagonist Genly Ai so struck me previously that I’ve used the name “Genly” in several online locations when I needed a handle. On this reading, however, perhaps because I’m now middle-aged and was then more Genly Ai’s contemporary in age, I identified with Therem Harth rem ir Estraven. Estraven is the moral center: restrained, patient, mature, visionary, committed to a greater good, capable of intentional self-sacrifice. Ai is no less fascinating as a character (indeed, flaws are often the most fascinating things about characters); it’s just that I’ve gained a fuller appreciation for Estraven.

Reunited with an old friend

For years, I have fondly remembered a novel I read when I was a kid. It was an adult novel, not a children’s book, and it was about people who moved from a city to the country to start a goat farm. I thought the title was Star Hill, and looked off and on over the years with no success. (Bear in mind I was reading a library book of unknown age in either the late sixties or early seventies.)

Well, recently I was made aware of Internet Archive’s book program, and took another try at search algorithms—and I found it! Turns out the title is Thunder Hill, and it is by Elizabeth Nicholds, published by Doubleday in 1953. I found a copy for sale online and am having a lovely time dipping into it.

Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson

Having spent a lot of time in Second Life over the past eleven years, parts of Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash are downright quaint: the ways in which he needs to explain avatars, or virtual spaces, or the word “metaverse.” And there are things he describes that have been implemented almost word-for-word in Second Life, which is kind of creepy.

I enjoyed the story itself (and much more than Neuromancer, with which Snow Crash is often paired as precursors to parts of the internet and virtual reality). I’ve only read a few of Stephenson’s novels, but I rather enjoy the way they meander and take side trips.

Taking a quick look back at 2017

Well. There was all the regular cultural stuff that everyone was dealing with. But here’s a list of some of what stands out in my life, in no particular order.

  • My father died. That leaves practical things to deal with, but also more emotional stuff than I expected. Somehow the death of my mother just made her absent from my childhood family of four, but my father’s death breaks it.
  • My place of employment went through a protracted (and ongoing) time of struggle and uncertainty around racism and leadership. It was a very, very difficult spring. And then at our annual conference in June, two coworkers were attacked on the street, and one was critically injured.
  • I returned to internet radio with a monthly show on Radio Riel, second Sundays, 12:30-2:00 pm Pacific (or Second Life) time: The Musical Magpie.
  • I sold my estate in Second Life (the second time I have done so)
  • Two trips to Brooklyn to visit Jim Ford. We returned to the Metropolitan Opera to see Norma in December (having seen Aida a year ago).
  • An annual September weekend in Provincetown (near the anniversary of my mother’s death) felt like it made the transition to an event all the participants “own.”
  • I scattered  my portion of my mother’s ashes in an old burial ground in Provincetown.
  • I became a staff chaplain, and while overall quite ambivalent about work (see above!) I felt an increased sense of being a longtime staff member with a particular contribution.
  • I rented a BMW convertible (long a pipe dream). It was worth every penny, although it would have made more sense in a slightly warmer season.
  • I lost 40 pounds (and still losing, after a holiday plateau).
  • By going to happy hour at a local bar nearly every Friday, I’ve made a new group of friends/acquaintances.
  • I went to a LOT of music events.

Ken Scholes’s The Psalms of Isaak

Over the holidays, I reread the first four volumes of Ken Scholes’s The Psalms of Isaak in preparation for the release of the fifth and final volume. I’m glad I did. There were things I had missed or didn’t remember. Hymn, the final volume, provided a satisfying conclusion (albeit with a bit of a deus ex machina—which is a pun, should you read the books) while leaving the door open for future stories in the same world. I hope Scholes does continue creating here.

The books, in order:

  • Lamentation
  • Canticle
  • Antiphon
  • Requiem
  • Hymn