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Book Review: A Spell of Winter by Helen Dunmore

February 22, 2016 2 comments

Book Review: A Spell of Winter by Helen DunmoreSummary:
Cathy and her brother Rob live with their emotionally distant grandfather on family land in England because her mother left, and her father died in a mental institution. Cathy and Rob seek refuge with each other against the world, but World War I won’t let them keep the world at bay forever.

Review:
I generally enjoy controversial books, and I heard that this historical fiction included the always controversial plot point of incest. The short version of my review is: it’s amazing how boring a book about incest and WWI can actually be. For the longer version, read on.

The book is told non-linearly in what appears to be an attempt to build suspense. The constant jumping with very few reveals for quite some time, though, just led to my own frustration.

I was similarly frustrated by the fact that Cathy’s childish interpretation of her father’s mental illness never progresses. She never moves from a child’s understanding to an adult’s understanding. This lack of progress gave a similar stagnant feeling to the book.

Of course, what the book is best-known for is the incest between Cathy and Rob. I found the scenes of incest neither shocking nor eliciting of any emotion. There are scenes where Cathy and Rob discuss how “unfair” it is that they cannot have children and society will judge them. But then again there are scenes that imply that Rob took advantage of Cathy. Well, which is it? It’s not that I demand no gray areas, but the existence of gray areas in such a topic would best be supported by a main character with insight. Cathy remains childlike throughout the book. Indeed, I think the characterization of Cathy is what holds the whole book back. Because the book is Cathy’s perspective, this lack in her characterization impacts the whole thing. What could be either a horrifying or a thought-provoking book instead ends up being simply meh. A lot of time is spent saying essentially nothing.

That said, I did enjoy how the author elicits the setting. I truly felt as if I was there in that cold and often starving rural England. I felt as if I could feel the cold in my bones. That beauty of setting is something that many writers struggle with.

Overall, this book read as gray and dull to me as the early 20th century English countryside it is set in. Readers with a vested interest in all varieties of WWI historic fiction and those who enjoy a main character with a childlike inability to provide insight are the most likely to enjoy this book. Those looking for a shocking, horrifying, or thought-provoking read should look elsewhere.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: PaperBackSwap

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Counts For:
Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge

Book Review: The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)

Photograph-style image of snowy/icy peaks and flats.Summary:
On the planet Winter, everyone is born intersex, morphing into one sex or the other during their mating cycle.  The Ekumen of Known Worlds has sent a representative, Genly Ai, to make first contact.  The Known Worlds have discovered that they are all related with the same ancestors who colonized the planets years ago.  Genly Ai is at first horrified by the intersex nature of the Gethenians but slowly begins to adapt as he works the political situation on the planet to reach a state of belief in what this one man from his one ship is saying.  A state of belief that is necessary to bring this planet into the Ekumen.

Review:
I picked this up when I saw it on sale at a local brick and mortar bookstore for two reasons.  I’d never read an Ursula K. Le Guin book, which felt like sacrilege as a young feminist scifi author myself, so she was already on my radar.  But why this book?  Honestly, I liked the cover.  It’s such a pretty cover!  So many scifi/fantasy books seem to be set on a hot planet, but this is set on an icy one, and I really liked that.  So when I picked it up, I had no idea that it’s considered to be a gender theory scifi.  It’s presented as a book about a planet totally lacking in gender.  You’ll notice that in my own summary that is not how I present it.  Why not?  Frankly, a gender-free society is not what I found in this book, which was a big disappointment.

The Gethenians really are not a gender free society, and Le Guin also doesn’t present them that way.  It is definitely an intersex society, but it’s intersex people who predominantly present as male/masculine.  Now, in case you’ve never had it explained, gender is a construct and sex is your body parts.  So you could have an intersex gendered female society or an intersex gender neutral society or an intersex gender male society.  The last one is what we have in this book.  At first it seems that this might just be Genly Ai’s misperception (the off-world ethnologist).  He mentions that he can’t help seeing the Gethenians as male, although sometimes he sees more “feminine features” in them.  Perhaps.  But when the narration changes from Genly’s viewpoint to a Gethenian one, we get the exact same presentation of everyone as a gendered he.  There is no gender neutral pronoun used.  There is no perception by the Gethenians of being free of gender.  Indeed, instead of seeing themselves as gender-neutral or gender-queer, they see themselves as male until their mating cycle when some of them turn into women for a bit.  (They also stay female long enough to be pregnant).  Genly points out after a couple of years on this planet that he’s forgotten what it’s like to be around women.  Not what it’s like to be around gender constructs.  What it’s like to be around women.  This is, thus, not a gender neutral society.  It’s a society of male-identifying intersex persons who are free of sex-drive most of the time, and who sometimes grow vaginas/breasts for the purpose of reproduction but for nothing else. It is definitely interesting to see an exploration of this type of society, but it’s decidedly not an exploration of a gender-neutral society or really much gender theory at all.  It is much more an exploration of the sex drive and a world without female-identifying persons. Now I’m not saying this isn’t a valid exploration or that it’s not well-done.  I am saying that the presentation and marketing of this book gets it all wrong, which makes me wonder did Le Guin think she was exploring a gender neutral society and accidentally make an intersex male gendered one instead?  Or did the publishers completely misunderstand everything about gender and sexuality and mismarket her book as something it is not?  I have no idea, but the potential reader should know that they are not getting an exploration of gender and queerness from a famous scifi/fantasy author when they pick up this book.

Moving beyond the queer theory and mismarketing of it, how is the rest of the book?  Well, the imagining of the world is stunning and clearly presented.  The idea that planets were all settled by common ancestors and then forgotten about only to be rediscovered later (very Stargate SG1) is subtly introduced into the plot without an info-dump.  The world of Winter contains multiple cultures and peoples (something often left out in scifi).  The planet even has its own way to mark the passing of time and has evolved to handle the coldness of the planet without Le Guin just copying an Earth culture from a cold area, like the Inuit.  No, this is all a unique way of approaching the demands of the climate.  It’s also interesting to note that different skin colors are present on Winter, showing that a mixed-race group originally colonized the planet, although their bone structure and height has changed with time and evolution.  The world building is so complex that I’m having difficulty explaining just how awesomely complex it is to you, so that should say something I suppose.

The plot is very political.  Genly is here on Winter to get the planet as a whole to unify enough to become part of the Ekumen.  Thus there is typical political intrigue across a couple of nations and various amounts of striving for power.  There’s nothing incredibly unique about this element of the book but it is clearly done and is not completely predictable.

There is an interesting character development where Genly has a friendship that could take a turn for the romantic.  How that line is walked could be endlessly analyzed.  I will just say to keep it spoiler free that I appreciated what Le Guin did with the relationship, and it was a unique one to see in literature.

Overall, this is a richly imagined scifi world where the setting is much more the focus of the book than the more typical political intrigue/first contact plot.  Do not be misled by the marketing to think that this is a book exploring a world free of gender.  Rather it is a male-gendered intersex world.  Thus, it is a book that will appeal to scifi lovers who prefer world-building over plot but don’t go into it expecting a scifi exploration of gender theory.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Harvard Books

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Friday Fun! (Soup Season)

February 18, 2011 6 comments

Hello my lovely readers!  It’s alternating between a pleasant 40-something degrees and so fucking damn cold that you just want to curl up under your pile of blankets and stay there forever.  This clearly means that it is soup making season.

The great thing about soups is not only do they warm you up, but they also actually taste better when reheated than the first time around.  Plus when you make a huge pot, there’s enough for dinner, lunch the next day, and some leftover to freeze for a busy evening later in the month.  As such, I’ve been making soups non-stop yo.

I have a plethora of options for actual soup recipes, as opposed to what I did in previous winters which was dump boullion, veggies, and pasta or rice in water and call it good enough.  No, no.  Now I’m making such things as Thai Butternut Squash and Lime Soup or Kale Potato Soup or Root Veggies Red Lentil Dal.  It’s divine.  It’s awesome.  It’s healthy.  It’s one of the pluses to cold weather.  I mean, seriously, I can’t imagine downing that dal in 90 degree heat.  Just would not work.

Of course, when the soup doesn’t cut it to warm you up, gin always also helps.  (Yes, I know technically it thins your blood so you get colder, but you still *feel* warmer, and that’s the point, isn’t it?)

Happy weekends all!

Friday Fun! (The Long Winter)

February 4, 2011 Leave a comment

I keep thinking this week about Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Book The Long Winter.  We’ve been slammed with snow, sleet, hail, thunderhail, thundersnow, and more almost every single day this week.  It’s dark.  It’s dreary.  Most New Englanders I know are struggling with the winter blues.  I’ve been taking to snuggling up under my electric blanket earlier and earlier at night, and all this reminds me of reading The Long Winter during the long Vermont winters when I was a kid.

Basically, in this entry in the Little House series of books, Laura’s pioneer family faces one of the worst winters ever.  Excruciating detail about the cold, the food, the clothes, and more go into the tale of how they managed to just barely survive that winter.  I’ll never forget the passage in which they hang their wet clothes out to freeze as a close approximation to drying.  Winter is just something northerners have always had to deal with.  I remind myself that at least I have a lot more entertainment and warmth than Laura did, but Laura also could just stay in the house all winter.  I have to go out and get to work.  Hibernation is just not an option.  Not to mention that it’d get lonely after a little while.

But there’s something comforting in reading about other people facing winter when you’re in the throes of it yourself.  I know some people like to read books set in the tropics in the winter, but personally I’ll always reach for tales of freezing cold and survival against all odds.  There’s a sort of camaraderie to it that only other northerners understand.

Happy weekend all!

Wolf Bite Wednesday (Snowbrellas)

February 3, 2010 4 comments

I’m starting a new weekly meme that I hope you all will enjoy.  I was inspired by a comment on my review of the book Ethan: Site 39.  The author stopped by and called it “the Wolf Bite,” which I found hilarious and promptly decided this needs to be a meme.

The meme will be a relatively brief and hopefully humorous rant about something that irritates me.  Hence the whole bite thing.  I will be trying for it to be witty and not whiny so you guys will enjoy.  Crossing my fingers, er, toes since I’m typing, let’s get down to business with the first topic: Snowbrellas!

I was pleased as punch to see snow greeting me this morning when I left for my commute.  Thoroughly enjoying feeling it land on my face and decorate my coat, I walked to my bus stop.  There I was met with one of my prime winter-time irritants.  No, not plow trucks or ice.  The Snowbrella.

The Snowbrella is what I have dubbed umbrellas when people carry them in the snow.  Long I have attempted to figure out what exactly possesses people to carry umbrellas when it’s snowing.  Do they not understand that the snow won’t soak through their clothing like rain does?  Have they never heard of the lovely concept of the winter hat?  Do they think if the snow touches anything but their boots they will melt?  Then I start to wonder if they’ve ever even ventured out in the snow without an umbrella or, god forbid, played in it.

The wonderful winter scenes of falling snow and the various snazzy hats and scarves people don in the winter are ruined by the appearance of these bulky snowbrellas.  They jar me from the pleasure of a season I enjoy with the association with the freezing rain of fall.  Not to mention that I then have to navigate not to get whapped upside the head by a snowbrella, because we all know how bad people are at managing where their snowbrella goes.

What the hell, people?  Acquire a winter hat, leave the snowbrella at home, stop ruining the scenery for everyone else, and enjoy the winter.  You live in New England, for heaven’s sake!  Enjoy it!

Plus, you look like a complete idiot hiding under your umbrella from the snow.