Monday, September 2, 2013

Books I read in August

A Feast for Crows by George R. R. Martin. In some obvious ways, a let down. The let down has nothing to do with the novel itself, which, not unlike A Clash of Kings, expertly tracks the fallout following a devastating assassination. ACoK shows Westeros' response to Ned Stark's beheading; in AFfC, Tywin Lannister's death precipitates the action. The disappointment, instead, was of my readerly expectations: I expected to read about Daenerys, Tyrion, Jon, Bran, etc, etc, and I didn't. What I got was great, but it wasn't what I expected. I (well, actually, we, since Emily and I read it together) spent the novel thinking: yes, great, but what about Tyrion??!!??

Apart from that, I loved the novel, which was dominated by Cersei, Jaime, and Brienne. Brienne's chapters filled the role Arya's did in the second novel--both characters moved through the Westerosi countryside, surveying the terror the war brought to smallfolk. But, somehow, Brienne seems more aware of her vulnerability than Arya ever did, even if Arya was usually in greater danger. Arya, perhaps too young to realize that she was always on the verge of a grizzly death, generated a grim confidence in her own ability to roll with the punches, escape whatever horror she was living, and kill everyone on her hit list. Brienne, ever a punchline and outcast, seems hyper-aware that everything is out to get her. Her chapter with Nimble Dick at the Whispers is a masterpiece of creeping dread and isolation.

I loved hate-reading Cersei's chapters. She's such a despicable character. Even though the chapters are good, in that they provide a rationale for Cersei's paranoia/shortsightedness/general incompetence, she is totally hate-able. But it's fun to hate her. Every chapter she makes some new disastrous decision that she thinks is a big win for her.

The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin. A masterpiece of empathy. I loved this book. It's a really fun, heartfelt, beautiful, frequently harrowing thought experiment. There are two planets: Urras, and Anarres. Urras is a planet not unlike our own (in 1970ish). It has two major nations: one like the US, one like the USSR. 170 years before the events of the novel, a philosopher named Odo started an anarchic movement on Urras, and Urras, instead of interfacing with the anarchists' politcal ideas, sent the anarchists to settle Anarres, where they establish a working anarchic society.

The anarchic society is really interesting. In principle, it operates without a government, and without any organized leadership structure. In practice, quasi-centralized organizations exist to mediate housing and job assignments. The society functions only because its people want it to function: there's no police, no justice system, and no one takes a job posting unless they want to. What makes the book great is that Anarres is no utopia. It's just a society with another set of cultural assumptions about what is right and wrong. These assumptions provide a strong collective identity, but have other limitations. LeGuin clearly sympathizes with the Anarresti, but she doesn't make things any easier for them. They're extremely poor (though poverty, of course, has a different meaning on Anarres), and a sustained drought for a few years nearly kills everyone on the planet.

The protagonist of the noval is the Anarresti physicist Shevek, who rebels against what he views as the bureaucracy and insularity of Anarresti science and communication. He becomes the first Anarresti to travel to Urras, and the novel is largely about the culture shock he experiences when he arrives.

There were a few interesting pedagogical ideas in the novel, which show up when Shevek contrasts education on Urras (instructors provide questions, students provide answers, instructors grade students) with education on Anarres (instructors lecture, students do self-guided study of their interests, there is no grading or ranking of students). Obviously, for a society that wants to educate its students in a particular way, or for a society which does not engender natural curiosity in students, or for a society in which students do not trust the education system, posing questions and demanding answers in exchange for grades is the only way to teach. But, in general, wouldn't good students get a lot more from their education if they were allowed to study what they wanted?

The Word for World is Forest by Ursula K. Le Guin. I liked this novel (novella?), though it's a little slighter than The Dispossessed. It challenges colonialism, paternalism, racism and racist scapegoating, and the distinction between civilized and uncivilized, but does so in a way that's not facile. Here, as in the other stuff of her's I've read, she writes strong characters who, taken together, articulate a compelling and coherent moral philosophy. Because her characters are round, instead of cardboard polemicists, her morality is a lot more convincing.

Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace. A collection of essays/reviews, all previous published in magazines. His essays are really readable, even when he's writing about a subject I don't have a lot of interest in, because he has an amazing ability to discover the fundamental tensions that complicate life in whatever he's writing about. So many of his essays reduce to a question deeply underlying his subject. He's really concerned about cynicism vs. idealism, for instance, and about irony vs. earnestness.

The title essay is ostensibly about the Maine Lobster Festival, but is about one-third description of how strange the festival is, and two-thirds discussion of the ethics of consuming lobster. DFW's thought process and arguments for/against eating lobster (and, generally, meat) are almost identically my own, and the uncomfortable trepidation with which he hashes all this out mirrors my own state of mine when I was deciding whether or not to give up meat.

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