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Tag Ursula K. LeGuin

Readings for August 2016

Summer reading, in force!

Stardust by Neil Gaiman

I'll begin by giving the Recommended tag. Stardust is a delightful little tale which shows Gaiman at his best. I may even read this one again one day.

It is always pleasant when as I reader I wonder to myself, "how did the author come up with this?" Novelty, not in a jarring sense, but in a way which works within the terms of the story, is what I love about this tale. Like all good modern fairy tales, it reacts to and plays off of common tropes, but enhances them with a twist.

Do yourself a favor, read Stardust.

My Struggle: Book 5 by Karl Ove Knausgaard

Zadie Smith is quoted as saying:

KARL OVE KNAUSGAARD. MY STRUGGLE. It's unbelievable. I just read 200 pages of it and I need the next volume like crack.

I'm in the same boat, Zadie. And I got my fix this month, as the fifth volume of Knausgaard's My Struggle has arrived in English hardcover. As has become my custom I bought it immediately on discovering its availability, abandoned what I had been reading heretofore been reading, and devoured it.

Book 5 is worth it - I think it is my favorite since Book 1. Books 3 and 4 had gotten into a more pure narrative recollection of Knausgaard's childhood. While this was interesting reading, it lacked the interludes and flash-forwards of the first two volumes which I loved so much. This book launches the young author's writing career and fills in the history of his young adult life, which had been covered obliquely in the prior works. There's a number of "a ha!" moments and moments which add richer detail to already-covered anecdotes.

Then there is a fairly significant story near the end which I'll not spoil. It adds some poignancy to the author's departure from Bergen and the dissolution of his first marriage. It was heavy, and emotional for me as a reader. All of this makes good writing.

Heartily recommended, and I can't wait for the final volume!

The Telling by Ursula K. LeGuin

LeGuin: she's so great she can make you love the "anthropologists in space" premise. The Telling relates the tale of an outsider - Sutty from earth - who comes to the planet Aka to observe and catalog the practices of the locals. While she was in her long interstellar flight the planet had a cultural revolution, so much of what she came expecting to find has been forced underground.

Our heroine finds her way out of the officially-sanctioned, government approved activities to visit people in the back country who still practice their ancient cultural traditions undercover. This centers on "The Telling", which is some part wisdom tradition and perhaps another part religion, but it eludes Sutty's attempts at definition. The search for truth leads her deep into the mountains, but also enlists her hosts in danger of reprisal from the central government. It's a pretty good yarn.

LeGuin deploys a trick that I love which works so well in the context of this novel. In a secret meeting place Sutty is experiencing a ritual when she observes something impossible, something supernatural. Yet nobody else truly acknowledges it, and she is left wondering if it was not some trick of perception in the poorly-lit room. This episode is left mostly unresolved for the reader, so you are left to ponder just what the nature of "The Telling" is. Recommended.


  • Harper's July 2016

Readings for July 2014

You can't always read as much as you want.

The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K. LeGuin

In reading The Tombs of Atuan I have completed LeGuin's Earthsea cycle. I read the whole thing out of "order", which is of course the proper way to read this series. The narrative focuses first not on Sparrowhawk, but on a young girl Tenar on a far island. Tenar has been selected as a young girl to be the figure head of her people's cultic religion. It is as a thief that Sparrowhawk comes to Atuan, meets Tenar, and begins the relationship at the heart of the cycle.

In Atuan LeGuin is trying to portray a caricature, I think, of a rotten culture. The place of worship is patrolled by spirits who exhibit malice and fear of change. The narrative becomes an account of Tenar's courage to confront the wickedness and free herself. In doing so she alienates herself, which seems fitting (and is one of my favorite fantasy tropes).

This was not my favorite Earthsea novel - that distinction will remain with The Farthest Shore until another read-through of the cycle. But, as with everything LeGuin I have read, this is recommended.

Red Shirts by John Scalzi

John Scalzi. Making fun of Star Trek. What more could you want a sci-fi comedic novel? Not much more, if you ask me. Red Shirts is the tale of those expendables on away missions who always seem to die needlessly. Scalzi launches from this premise into a fun plot which gets more distance than I had guessed before reading it. Certainly recommended.


  • Tin House #59 - I have now completed my first ten issues of Tin House. Each issue is still a treat.
  • Harper's August 2014

Readings for May 2013

It turns out that my Harper's subscription had been mis-routed to some other Nathan Smith in the area. I am working with them to get it straightened out and for back issues to arrive. Until then, I read anything but.

The Other Wind by Ursula K. LeGuin

What I love about prolific authors is that you can always go to them in a pinch. I was wanting to read a bit of fantasy. I thought, "I know, I have not read all of the Earthsea cycle!" So I bought The Other Wind.

LeGuin truly has mastered the short novel. She tells a deep story. Her books do not get overlong, yet neither do they feel short on detail. I am not sure if anyone else writing science fiction or fantasy has her skill in this arena. Definitely a recommended read.

The Glory of Their Times by Lawrence Ritter

The Glory of Their Times is Lawrence Ritter's excellent compilation of interviews with "old time" baseball players. He went all around the country for years to gather stories from elderly ex-players. The result is fantastic reading for baseball fans. It is really great to hear the perspectives on the early decades of the game.

There was a general consensus that the adoption of the "live ball" and emphasis on power hitting was a negative development. Many players lamented that Major League Baseball was now (in the 1960s) a less cerebral game. Some insisted the old-timers were the best, but others conceded that the modern athletes were better. Mays and Koufax were two names which kept coming up. Best of all for me were the multiple perspectives on the same events. In some cases the details were identical - you could really tell there was an oral history among players. But in some cases there were some discrepancies.

This book really is something of a classic. While reading I could see how this work is foundational for other classics, including Ken Burns' documentary. It is a must-read for baseball fans.


  • Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet #22 - For the most part I loved this issue. One continuing qualm I have about speculative fiction is my suspicion that authors are being unclear for its own sake.
  • Scientific American January 2013 - Cameron Smith's examination of "How Humans Will Evolve on Multigenerational Space Exploration Missions" was a really fascinating look at an important topic which is not often thought about in the context of space exploration.
  • Scientific American February 2013 - The featured article suggests that human memories are "striped" across many neurons, but not as many as we might think. Sounds like a computer storage array to me.

Just keep reading.

Readings for August 2012

In August I was in the process of testing, interviewing, and starting a new position, so my reading has dropped off a bit. I am pushing to get back into gear this month with a bunch of periodicals. Yet I still had a few good reads.

The Word for World is Forest by Ursula K. LeGuin

Best to just start this post with the positive recommendation. I love Ursula K. LeGuin's fiction, and so should you. At first I thought this work was new, but discovered it is an oldie (but a goodie). The story is about a clash of cultures and a few brave souls who seek to bridge the gap. As such, I could not help but notice the similarity to the Pocahontas/Dances With Wolves/Avatar trope. However, The Word for World is Forest predates these, and has a much less Hollywood (read: better) take on the theme.

The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan

A friend and I agreed to tackle Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series now that Brandon Sanderson has completed his work on the final novel. We're going to take it easy, starting each novel at great intervals. It should take us quite a while to get through.

The first novel has definitely got me interested in continuing. The seeds of epic adventure are well planted and cultivated in this work. I must admit at first I was a bit perplexed by some similarities to the Lord of the Rings (e.g. "Mountains of Mist" \~= "Misty Mountains"; "Mountains of Dhoom" \~= "Mount Doom"; a rider cloaked in black). They seemed a bit obtuse to be an homage, but too obvious to be a credibly labeled a rip-off. But never fear, Jordan takes the story in his own direction, and I can already see what subsequent fantasy owes to his work. Recommended for a start, but always start 14-novel series with caution.


Harper's August 2012 - Benjamin Hale's "The last distinction? Talking to the animals" was a real delight. It explores the short history of ape language acquisition and the ethical and scientific struggles surrounding it .Anyone interested in linguistics will be fascinated by this piece.

Readings for February 2012

This month I read three novels and four periodicals (well, four and a half). This was a good reading month overall. At the start of March my wife and I are choosing each other's selections. We're making it a new tradition. I report on her choice for me next month.

The Well of Ascensionby Brandon Sanderson

Here I am, reading more Sanderson. I could very well finish his entire published corpus in a single year (excluding his work on the Wheel of Time). Only two more books to go for that milestone. As usual, I love Sanderson's stories. This is a good middle chapter in the Mistborn trilogy, and I doubt I'll be able to wait long before moving on the the final installment, The Hero of Ages.

Shutter Islandby Dennis LeHane

I had the opportunity to get this book for free. Having seen and enjoyed the film, I decided to give this a shot. I liked it overall. There is a high degree of fidelity from the novel to the screenplay, which I take as a compliment to Lehane, given that Scorsese was the director of the film. Of course having seen the film there were no big revelations for me in the book, but it was an enjoyable and swift read nonetheless.

The Lathe of Heavenby Ursula K. LeGuin

The Lathe of HeavenPublished in the early 1970s, this is a fairly early LeGuin work. Of course I loved it. It is really a standout in the "speculative fiction" genre. The action takes place in Portland, which is even better. I found myself soaring over the protagonist's home whilst riding the Portland Aerial Tram the other day. It was also somewhat amusing to read a description of Mt. St. Helens as having a perfectly conical shape.

The novel takes place just after the turn of the century, so there are necessarily some expressions of LeGuin's imagination of the future. That future has become our recent past, and so we have hindsight. The result range between hilarity and just plain shocking wrongness. In writing fiction LeGuin was not making predictions per se, so I cannot hold them against her. Yet I am amazed by the outlook for the future in the early 70s. Of particular note is that the fictitious world of 7 billion humans is so scarce for food that Americans are skinny and distilled spirits are rare. As we all know, with a 7 billion mouths to feed, obesity in the US is higher than ever.

In spite of all that, the story is great. Suspension of disbelief was not a problem for me. LeGuin delivers again.


  • International Socialist Review, January-February 2012. I bought this on a random whim at the book shop, and I suppose I am on a watch-list or something now. 2011 was apparently an invigorating year for leftists, though the pages of this magazine seemed to be filled with uncertainty on how best to interpret and channel the rebellious energy of the Arab spring and Occupy Wall Street. The most compelling parts of this issue were the historical articles. I found the implication of violent revolution distasteful to my pacifist Christian sensibilities.
  • Harper's, February 2012. One of my favorite aspects of Harper's is its ability to take a completely obscure (to me) subject and make it incredibly interesting. Daniel Alarcón's write-up of an election in a Peruvian prison fits the bill perfectly.
  • Harper's, March 2012. "The Tyranny of Breast Feeding" by Elizabeth Badinter was a perplexing read, and not just because I disagree with her fundamental position. Essentially her argument is that La Leche League and other breastfeeding advocates have moderately overstated the benefits of breastfeeding and therefore their influence should decrease. I find it odd to imagine that subjecting the feeding of one's child to a formula producer is somehow throwing off tyranny.
  • Scientific American,February 2012. The careful reader will note that I skipped January 2012. In truth I read about half of it, but I marooned it on vacation, and my completion is probably delayed until late summer. As for this issue, I feel fairly certain that I want to keep my children out of hockey and American football after reading yet another article on the correlation between repeated head trauma and myriad health problems

Readings for January 2012

I asked for and received some excellent reading materials this Christmas, and I got started on them in January.

We, The Drowned by Carsten Jensen

And now for something completely different. I spotted We, The Drowned on a featured shelf in my local library. Now I do not often pick up random books - I typically read my trusted authors or recommendations from friends - but on that day I was feeling adventuresome. As it happened, this was an excellent choice to fit my mood.

Carsten Jensen's novel is a multi-generational seafaring epic. It follows the life of a Danish seafaring town through the tumultuous 19th and 20th centuries. The book is by turns comedic and wrenching, always a page-turner The characters are vivid and the plots are on the wild side, but Jensen pulls the whole thing off to great effect.

I really enjoyed reading this, and I recommend it to anyone wanting to try something completely different. The translation was nicely readable, so have no fear on that account. Just sit back and take in a good story.


I had the opportunity to start a new subscription and sample a 'zine this month. Overall I get the feeling that there is a lot of good content out there which I am missing. Here are the magazines I completed this month:

  • Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet #27. I am considering subscribing after enjoying a one-off issue. "The Sale of Midsummer" by Joan Aiken was a favorite short story.
  • Scientific American December 2011. Mark W. Moffett shares a fascinating account of ant warfare. Glad to know that we humans are not unique in depravity.
  • Harper's January 2012. "The pharmacist from Jena" by Michael Dahlie was a memorable short story.
  • Tin House #50. Wow. I am so pleased to be taking a subscription to this magazine (which happens to be published right here in Portland). Great stories, great essays, great poetry. "Beautiful Monsters" by Eric Puchner is a great example of speculative fiction. Loved this and more, and I cannot wait for the next quarterly issue.

Lavinia by Ursula K. LeGuin

I specifically listed LeGuin with Cormac McCarthy as a genre-bender - not only blurring genre lines, but fusing the line between "genre fiction" and "literature." LeGuin is already recognized for both science fiction and fantasy, but withLavinia she adds historical fiction to her repertoire.

Of course it is not your standard historical fiction, as should be expected of LeGuin. The master story teller extrapolates a compelling story from ancient epic poetry. In spite of the plot being a near-total invention, I can tell that LeGuin did her homework in researching ancient Italy for this novel.

As usual, LeGuin keeps her writing short and sweet. Laviniacombines great storytelling with a fascinating premise, and it is definitely recommended.

Readings for July 2011

Much of my reading this past month was taken up by two long novels in an epic fantasy series. I also had the joy of beginning a vacation at the end of the month, so I will have a burst of books read in next month's installment.


I am still fairly far behind on my periodical reading. I have back issues of Biblical Archaeology Review, and some JBL articles I should be reading as well. I only finished the July issue of Scientific American this month.  The interview of Leonard Susskind was a nice treat. It was certainly more philosophical than most SciAm articles, which I appreciate. The core of the interview concerned Susskind's skepticism that a grand unifying theory of physics can ever be articulated. He postulates that the flawed subjectivity of human perception and thinking makes it effectively impossible, and that the better goal of science is the empirical, not the theoretical. Scientists are in need of epistemological humility, and I am glad that this article gained wide readership in the pages of SciAm. Perhaps it will generate some interesting letters to the editor.

A Feast For Crows by George R.R. Martin (July 13)

I happily finished my re-read of A Song of Ice and Fire just in time for the next installment, finishing A Feast for Crows on the very day I got A Dance With Dragons in the mail. Many of the details of this volume were foggy to me, so it was like reading it again for the first time. I know this fourth book has received some harsh criticism from fans because it is too peripheral to the main story and only advances the story for half of the characters. I am willing to forgive it, however. I think the theme of chaos in the story is well-served by the meanderings of Crows, and there is some fine character development along the way. As if I had any choice: Recommended.

A Dance With Dragons by George R.R. Martin (July 23)

Finally! It was a long wait. Actually for me the wait was not quite as long as other die-hard fans. I actually came to A Song of Ice and Fire after A Feast For Crows was released, so this was my first highly-anticipated release in the series. It did not disappoint.

A Dance With Dragons continues the theme of chaos from the previous volume and extends it into the other half of the characters' story arcs. I obviously cannot say too much, in deference to those who have not read the new book yet. Martin has taken the story in a good direction. Based on how this installment ends, I trust that the author is beginning the process of consolidating the plots and characters from their present far-flung circumstances. I remain a loyal fan: Recommended.

(The general feel on the street is that the television series has sufficiently piqued interest in A Song of Ice and Fire that Martin may complete the next novel in a shorter period. We can only hope.)

The Invention of the Biblical Scholar by Stephen Moore and Yvonne Sherwood (July 25)

I received this fairly short work as a birthday gift. It was not what I was anticipating. The authors are generally concerned at the outset with the relationship between biblical scholarship and literary Theory. The result is that the book takes at least 40 pages to really take off into what I considered interesting territory. But once it did, I found it to be worth the effort. This read was also an interesting way to get exposed to literary Theory, which I had only heard as the object of mild curses by my college English professors and various and sundry other cultural critics of these latter days. Recommended.

Tehanu by Ursula K LeGuin (July 31)

[][]I have yet to find a book by Ursula K. LeGuin which I do not like. She is among the best in the fantasy and sci-fi genres at making good use of the other-worldly metaphors which those genres allow. Tehanu feels less adventuresome than other books in the Earthsea cycle. It is the Deep Space 9 of the series, if you pardon the analogy. But it is a good coda to the story of the wizard Sparrowhawk.

As always LeGuin employs magic, mythical creatures, compelling characters, and an awesome setting in her story, but she does not let them get in the way. Rather she tells a good story and augments it where it is necessary with the magical. Tehanu is a sublime read,  and as such it was an excellent beginning to my summer vacation reading. Recommended.