Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

The Left Hand of Darkness is a story about Genly Ai, an envoy sent to the ice-bound planet Winter to convince its peoples to join the Ekumen. Winter is inhabited by people that are bi-gendered. Once a month they enter kemmer, a time where they change into a man or woman. The man/woman in kemmer pairs with an opposite gendered person also in kemmer in order to have children. With no tendency to favor becoming a man or a woman during kemmer, inhabitants of Winter can be fathers and mothers to several children.

This bi-genderedness is the attention getting concept in The Left Hand of Darkness, but it is really just background to the actual story. Ai's mission proves difficult when he gets caught in the web of internal and external political struggles in both Karhide and Orgota. But, he does make a friend, Estraven, a once powerful figure in the government of Karhide now banished. Their mutual struggles make up the plot of this sci-fi classic.

A winner of both the Hugo and Nebula awards, I had high expectations for The Left Hand of Darkness. I was disappointed, for the book did not meet my expectations. The bi-genderedness of the inhabitants of Winter is, without a doubt, brilliant. But for me it wasn't enough to carry the entire novel. The plot, while decent, did not really excite. In the end, I found The Left Hand of Darkness to be a mediocre read.


I read The Left Hand of Darkness for:

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Human Dark With Sugar by Brenda Shaughnessy

Human Dark With Sugar, winner of the 2007 James Laughlin Award of the Academy of American Poets, is full of poems in which there is delightful play with words. The poems do not have a strong narrative element, which I usually prefer my poetry to have, but Shaughnessy's use of language is beautiful and evocative. I enjoyed reading her poetry so much it inspired me to sign up for the Clover, Bee, and Reverie Poetry Challenge.


The Conference of Birds by Farid Ud-Din Attar

The Conference of Birds by Farid Ud-Din Attar is a mystical poem described by Reza Aslan in his book No god but God as by far the most famous parable describing the Sufi Way. Written in the twelfth century, Attar's poem describes how the birds of the world have gathered to elect a bird to lead them to the Simurgh, the King of the Birds. They elect the hoopoe to lead them. Before departing several birds question the wisdom of making the journey. The hoopoe answers each in turn with stories and parables. The birds then journey through the the Valleys of the Quest, Love, Mystery, Detachment, Unity, and Bewilderment before arriving at the Valley of Nothingness. Thousands of birds began the journey, but only thirty complete it. When they finally look upon the Simurgh they see themselves, for Simurgh means thirty birds in Persian. They struggled through the various challenges of the arduous journey only to discover that it was themselves they sought.

I heard about this book from Reza Aslan's No god but God. I looked forward to reading it, but was very disappointed upon doing so. The majority of the poem is taken up by the questions asked by the various birds. The parables and stories told in response were often seemed boring or repetitive to me. I would have liked to have read more about the actual journey, but it takes up surprisingly little of the poem. There were a few bright spots though. I especially enjoyed the story of Story Of Shaykh San‘an, which you can read for yourself at this online translation of The Conference of Birds.


The Clover, Bee, And Reverie Poetry Challenge

I know I'm participating in many reading challenges right now. One of the things I like best about reading challenges is the challenge part. If chosen well, reading challenges encourage you to read things you would not have otherwise read. The Clover, Bee, And Reverie Poetry Challenge is such a challenge for me.

I have never really been a reader of poetry, so I was intrigued when I saw this challenge in my feed reader. I thought about it, but poetry? Nah. Besides, I had so many other challenges going. But over the last couple of months it kept nagging at me.

Then I read the Sufi mystical poem The Conference of Birds by Farid Ud-Din Attar for the Read Your Own Books Challenge. I didn't really enjoy it overall, but there were a few luminescent moments. So, on my next trip to the library, I randomly grabbed a book of poetry from the stacks: Human Dark With Sugar by Brenda Shaughnessy. Even though the Shaughnessy's poetry isn't the kind with a strong narrative arc I prefer, I enjoyed reading it. I now have several books of poetry checked out from the library with the intention of reading them and I'm looking forward to completing The Clover, Bee, And Reverie Poetry Challenge .

Monday, March 22, 2010

Flow: The Cultural History of Menstruation by Elissa Stein & Susan Kim

In the book Flow: The Cultural History of Menstruation Elissa Stein and Susan Kim cover a broad number of menstrual topics: how we talk about it, the history of hysteria, religious views on menstruation. Most of the book is devoted to the growth and influence of what they call the femcare industry. They cover these topics with a great deal of humor. So much so that at times the prose feels forced. They often seem to try to hard to be hip or be funny. I could almost hear the laugh track in the background. Their humor also seemed at odds with their efforts that the topic be treated seriously. In fact I was disappointed at the lack of serious academic history. But do not let these minor quibbles put you off reading this book. It is a light read that you just might enjoy.

I know that it might seem weird that a man would read this book. I have to admit, I was curious. After all, my wife suffers through a period every month. Though never unsympathetic about it, I certainly have much more sympathy for her (and all women) after reading this book. So, perhaps more men should read it.


Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Woman and the Puppet by Pierre Louÿs

During the Carnival in Seville, a young Frenchman, André Stévenol, spots a beautiful young woman. But before he can speak to her she disappears. Fortunately he sees her again in a carriage. He chases it to a house. He knocks on the door but is turned away by the butler. André sees a match seller on the corner, who gives him the woman's name. She is Doña Concepción Pérez, the wife of Don Manuel Garciá. When André returns home, he finds a letter promising a rendezvous with the young lady.

Before his rendezvous, André visits with an old friend, Don Mateo. When Don Mateo finds out that André is meeting Conceptción, or Concha, he is becomes quite agitated. He urges André not to meet Concha. When André asks why, Don Mateo tells him that he was once Concha's lover. Don Mateo relates the story of how, over the course of several years, Concha cruelly teased him. While Don Mateo supports Concha and her mother, she continually led him to believe that she would sleep with him, but for years she never relents to do so.

Will André keep the rendezvous? What will Don Mateo do not that he has learned that Concha is in Seville, the very city in which he resides? You must read The Woman and the Puppet to find out.

This is my third Pierre Louÿs book. I enjoyed reading it, but thought Aphrodite and The Songs of Bilitis were better.


Tuesday, March 16, 2010

More Challenges? You have got to be kidding!

I find myself unable to resist signing up for some more challenges. I have been making good progress on the ones in progress. I finished the Much Ado About Shakespeare and Centuries challenges. I have only one more book for the Numbers and GLBT challenges. I am considering, however, going up a level on the GLBT Challenge. Given the progress I have made, I thought perhaps I have room for some more challenges.

I have kept my eye on the Women Unbound Challenge for some time. Today I checked out the book Flow: The Cultural Story of Menstruation from my local library as a catalyst for signing up for the challenge. I must say that I feel a little weird reading the book since I am male. But I did see a favorable review of the book by a man on Amazon. Plus the Reader's Bill of Rights says I can read whatever I want to. Anyway, here are some of the books I am considering reading for this challenge:

  1. Flow: the Cultural Story of Menstruation by Elissa Stein and Susan Kim

  2. The Purity Myth: How America's Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women by Jessica Valenti

  3. Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement by Joyce, Kathryn

  4. O: The Intimate History of the Orgasm by Jonathan Margolis

  5. Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters

  6. Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

  7. Infidel by A. H. Ali

  8. Grotesque by N. Kirino

I will also be participating in the Orbis Terrarum Challenge. But no list of possibles for this one. I like to wander through the library picking things at random for this challenge.

Two Erotic Tales by Pierre Louÿs

Two Erotic Tales by Pierre Louÿs includes The Songs of Bilitis, which I have already reviewed, and Aphrodite. Aphrodite is the story of Demetrios and Chrysis. Chrysis is a famous courtesan in Alexendria; Demetrios the famous sculptor and lover of the queen. During a chance meeting between the two Demetrios falls in love with Chrysis. But she is disdainful and says she will only bestow her favors upon him if he gets her three gifts. Demetrios must steal a silver mirror from Rhodopis, another famous courtesan; an ivory comb from the wife of the high priest of Alexandria; and the pearl necklace from around the neck of the statue of Aphrodite in the temple. All three are bold crimes which Demetrios commits. After the crimes Demetrios finds that he is indifferent to Chrysis, but she, convinced that his crimes means he loves her, has fallen in love with him. When Demetrios tells Chrysis where he has hidden the three gifts he rejects her loving advances and demands that she put all three gifts on and walk through the middle of Alexandria wearing them. Chrysis, her passion for Demetrios driving her on, does so. She is arrested and sentenced to death by drinking hemlock. Demetrios, however, escapes punishment.

Louÿs' poetic language made it a treat to read Aphrodite and The Songs of Bilitis. Aphrodite has more of a narrative; The Songs of Bilitis is a series of prose poems with a looser narrative arc. I really like the plot of Aphrodite. The crimes and their consequences, while horrifying, were riveting. Demetrios' eventual rejection of Chrysis followed by her execution lend the story a sense of tragedy. Aphrodite is a great story, but with its erotic themes, it is not for everyone.


Saturday, March 13, 2010

Seven Pleasures by William Spiegelman

William Spiegelman, a professor of English at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, has written a collection of essays, Seven Pleasures, about everyday things that make him happy: reading, walking, looking (at art), dancing, listening (to music), swimming, and writing. Each essay is a light, personal meditation on one of these activities. The essays are engaging and enjoyable to read, but ephemeral and soon forgotten.

I am glad I read this book, though not for the Spiegelman's essays themselves. More intriguing is this idea of ordinary activities that can bring one pleasure. Reading Seven Pleasures made me wonder what ordinary activities I would class as bringing me joy. Like Spiegelman, I too enjoy reading, looking at art, listening to music, and writing, but are there any other activities?

I couldn't think of many beyond those I share with Spiegelman. Just hanging out with my eight year old son can bring me real joy. I love tea and drinking a cup good Chinese black tea is a very ordinary happiness I enjoy every morning. But truly, reading is the ordinary happiness that I come back to over and over.

What about you? What are the ordinary everyday things that make you happy?


Read for:

  • Numbers Challenge

  • GLBT Challenge - because Spiegelman happens to be gay, although he only mentions it in passing and it doesn't really have anything to do with his essays.

Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare

In William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night Viola and her twin brother Sebastian are separated by a disastrous shipwreck. Viola, believing her brother dead, finds her way to the court of Duke Orsino in Illyria. There, dressed as a man, she becomes the confidant of the Duke under the name Cesario. Orsino is madly in love with Olivia, a wealthy countess. The duke sends Viola to woo Olivia in his name, but Olivia falls in love with Viola and Viola falls in love with the Duke.

While all the wooing and falling in love is happening, Sir Toby Belch, kinsman to Olivia, and Sir Andrew Aguecheek, a friend of Sir Toby's and suitor to Olivia, pull a practical joke on Olivia's steward, Malvolio. Maria, Olivia's lady in waiting, forges a letter that she drops where Malvolio will find it. The forged letter convinces the steward that Olivia is in love with him. It instructs him to dress and act in a way guaranteed to annoy the Duchess. Upon doing so, Malvolio is thought to be mad and finds himself confined to the cellar.

Sebastian, rescued by the sea captain Antonio, now arrives in Illyria. Antonio gives Sebastian his purse to use while sightseeing. Antonio cannot go with Sebastian because he is a wanted man in Illyria, and so leaves to find lodging. Meanwhile, Sir Toby decides to prank Sir Andrew, convincing him to challenge Viola/Cesario to a duel over Olivia. Sir Toby conspires to convince both would be combatants that a duel is unavoidable. When the fracas begins, Antonio stumbles in and intervenes, mistaking Viola for Sebastian. Antonio is promptly arrested. He asks Viola for his purse, hoping to pay his way out of his legal troubles, but she of course knows nothing about it. Antonio curses the confused Viola.

Sebastian, while wandering about the city, encounters Olivia. The countess takes him for Viola and bundles him off to the church where they are married in secret. Later, Orsino visits the Countess. When he once again proclaims his love, Olivia reveals the secret marriage to Sebastian. But it Viola in attendance, not Sebastian. Viola denies the marriage, but the priest is called in to verify it. Orsino curses Viola as a betrayer and Viola is finally forced to reveal the truth that she is a woman. Orsino falls in love with Viola. Sebastian returns to the court and is reunited with his sister. Malvolio is freed from the cellar. Everyone agrees that his was badly used, but Malvolio remains angry and stalks off at the end of the play.

I rather enjoyed this play. It is certainly not on the level of Hamlet or King Lear, but it was a delight to read. I would recommend it if you have already read Shakespeare's great plays already, but this is not where I would recommend the new reader of Shakespeare begin.


Read for:

  • Much Ado About Shakespeare Challenge - an extra because it's Shakespeare and he is that good.

  • Numbers Challenge

  • GLBT Challenge - because of Viola's cross-dressing and Antonio's professions of love for Sebastian along with what he says about his time with Sebastian: ... and for three months before, / No interim, not a minute's vacancy, / Both day and night did we keep company.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

36 Arguments for the Existence of God by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein's newest novel, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, is about a professor Cass Seltzer. Cass is a professor of psychology and his field of academic study is the psychology of religion. Cass has written a book, "The Varieties of Religious Illusion", that discusses the novel's eponymous 36 arguments. The book, a best seller, has propelled Cass to fortune and fame. If academic success weren't enough, Cass has garnered the affections of a beautiful mathematician, Lucinda Mandelbaum. Cass, in the midst of this extraordinary luck, feels as though he has been mistakenly given someone else's life.

The novel alternates between Cass' famed present and his past. We learn about his ex-wife, Pascale; his ex-girlfriend, Roz; and his ex-mentor, Professor Klapper; as well as his relationship to Lucinda. Goldstein does a fantastic job of moving events in the past and present forward toward toward a climax. Will things work out with Lucinda? What about Roz, who, retired from an academic career as an anthropologist, has resurfaced in Cass' life? What about Azarya, a child prodigy who must choose between his phenomenal mathematical gift and his duty as the next Rebbe to the Waldeners?

I loved this book. It is everything a novel is supposed to be, an engaging narrative about human life and relationships. It is full of memorable characters: Professor Klapper, Azarya, Pascale, Roz, and Lucinda. The characters are so wonderfully developed I found myself rooting for a particular outcome. I cannot recommend you read this novel enough.


Thursday, March 04, 2010

Moral Relativism by Steven Lukes

I was disappointed by Steven Lukes Moral Relativism. I had expected an interesting treatise on the philosophical aspects of moral relativism, but instead the book is grounded more in sociology and anthropology, which, by personal taste, I find less engaging.

Lukes makes some interesting points about moral relativism. He asserts that there are two kinds of moral relativism. First is the concept that there are many moral systems instead of a single universal one; Amazonian tribal peoples have a different moral system than suburban Californians. Moral relativism also encompasses the belief that no moral system should be more privileged than another and that the morality of a particular behavior depends on the context. It is this idea that agitates people.

Lukes' discussion of moral relativism made clear to me that moral disputes can be a disagreement over the fundamental facts of the matter in question, rather than a disagreement about a particular moral precept. The prohibition of murder is an example of a fairly universal moral precept. But, how does this relate to the death penalty? I am against the death penalty because I think it is murder, the intentional killing of another human being. I live in the state of Texas where many people are pro death penalty. Does that mean they don't believe murder is immoral? Of course not. We disagree not about a prohibition against murder, but about whether execution of a convicted felon is murder. It seems that many disputes about morality are like this, more about definitions than about actual morality.