Review: Pretty Monsters: The Wrong Grave

The book I started this weekend, Pretty Monsters by Kelly Link, is a collection of short stories.  So, I think I'll review them one by one.  Mostly because the first one was awesome, and I have loads I want to say about it. ...Below the fold.

The Wrong Grave is about a teenager who puts some poems in his dead girlfriend's casket, then later on decides he wants them back.  So he digs her up, but finds some other dead girl in her grave -- a dead girl with a snarky attitude and pretty intense supernatural powers.

I've been watching a lot of Adventure Time lately, and I cannot begin to explain how much this story reminded me of Marceline. 

I don't just want to gush about Adventure Time, though.  (Well, I kinda do.  I'm getting there.)  I read some of Kelly Link's work a few years ago, and I found it hard to follow, and fun, but only after a great deal of unpicking.  The everything-going-on-all-at-once aesthetic offers an extraordinarily complex sense of otherworldliness that, at the time, I had no experience with.

Now, though, I have Adventure Time to compare it to.

A couple years ago, I had very nearly no experience with narratives that implied huge, complex backgrounds that are totally alien to the intended audience.  Most of the stuff I'd read or seen very carefully spoon-fed all the necessary information to me before it relied on it for plot purposes.

Since then, either this screw-it attitude to explaining things has gotten a lot more mainstream, or I've just bumped into it a lot more.  Adventure Time is full of this kind of apparently uncoordinated backstory, and for a while I thought it was just thrown together randomly.  But the more I watch, the more it turns out there's a huge, coherent narrative, almost all of which we're just not being told.

I think this experience has made Link's work way easier to follow, and so it's way easier to enjoy.  (Not that I didn't enjoy it before.  Just now it doesn't take me several days.)  I'm glad I'm there now, too, because apparently that's the kind of writing that's getting popular.

Review: The New Moon's Arms

I finished reading Nalo Hopkinson's The New Moon's Arms on Friday night.  And, I don't really know what to say about it. I mean, it was good.  Really good.  The writing was vivid and constantly engaging, the characters were well-rounded and compelling, and the magic snuck in so gradually that for a while I thought I might be reading one of those books that gets shelved in the other part of the book store.  You know, the ones about families and relationships and tragedy where it's all real-lifey and sad.

And it was.  I don't think I was really ready for that.  I mean, I wasn't expecting to come into a book that spent this much time exploring what it means to be a human being in a normal world, and I don't really know where to take that in terms of broad interpretation.

Mostly what I got from this book was the really brilliant, skillful writing, but that's not much of a topic for a review.  I've got a lot of reading to do this semester, but if I have time, I hope to circle back to this one and take a closer look.  This might be one of those books you need to read twice.  Or, at least, one that I need to read twice.

I'm going to leave off the spoilery section of this review, because I don't think I have enough to say to justify it.

Review: The Left Hand of Darkness

I've been meaning to get around to reading something by Ursula K. Le Guin for a while now, and I honestly picked up the Left Hand of Darkness half out of a sense of obligation.  It's one of those books I knew I should read, which doesn't always translate into books I want to read.  [1. I feel the same way about Ender's Game, by the way, which I'm reading now because my little brother insisted.] I'm really glad I read this, though.  And I'm eager to read more of Le Guin's work.[2. Which won't be for a while, because the next twenty or so books I'm reading are all by teachers at this year's Clarion, in case I get in.]

The general idea of the story is:  Genly Ai, a human male envoy (the "first mobile") has come to a planet, Gethen, populated by a species of human that doesn't have two sexes, and doesn't have a gender binary.  A big part of the appeal of this book is the astounding quality of the thought experiment, what would civilization be like without a sex divide?  But that's not all worth reading in it.

Not totally spoilery content below, but with more information about what the book contains past the first couple chapters.

For clarity, I should explain:  any given Gethenian is usually -- not asexual, but sexually dormant, and during their sexually active period may shift into either a male or female role.  They neither have control over which way they shift on any given period of sexual activity, nor only ever shift into one sex or the other for their entire lives.  If a Gethenian takes on the female role in one particular period of sexual activity, they may become pregnant, and for nine months plus nursing time their body remains more in a state like femaleness.  This isn't a species with secret genders only expressed sometimes, it's a species where everyone has the same relationship to their sexual and procreative organs as everyone else.

It's genuinely striking, when you read this book, to keep noticing that it feels like half of a species is missing.  Everyone is treated equally as full members of society, and you feel that sense that there's a second class missing.  Genly consistently fails to acclimate to the fundamental differences between Gethenian civilizations and ours, and so did I.  In that sense, it's very illustrative of humans' internalized sexism.[3. At first I wrote "Actual humans," but I don't want to suggest that the Gethenians aren't human.  I was going for "non-fictional" but fell short.]

But I don't want to go on forever about the gender identity part of the book.  I hope you read it, and everything I say about it will detract from its impact when you do.

The thing I liked best about the book, I think, was the backstory about how Genly got there.   He represented the Ekumen, an interplanetary organization that primarily focused on organizing trade.  Every planet they represented, though, was populated by humans, and every one discovered the way that Gethen was discovered, populated by humans of some kind or another.

The universe, we discover, was subject to some great trauma, and at some point before that, there were people who went to planets and abandoned groups of humans.  Genly thinks it's likely that the Gethenians were an experiment performed by some unethical group, to remove sexual differentiation from humanity, populate a planet with them, and see what happens.

The narrative of the book comes entirely through two perspectives, Genly's field notes and the journal of Therem Harth rem ir Estraven, as well as a handful of stories from the Genethian oral tradition.  I didn't really expect it to be, but the story that these narratives end up telling is enthralling in its own right.  I was about two thirds of the way through the book before I realized that I cared more about what was going to happen to and between Genly and Estraven than I did about learning more about Gethen.

Altogether this is an incredibly good book, and I recommend it highly, and look forward to when I'm going to have the time to give it a second read.