Books I’ve Been Reading

Not including all the Harry Potter fanfiction. Quick reviews, because I have nothing particularly long and insightful to say about most of them. I’m just looking around my desk (and inside the Stanza iPhone app) and trying to remember what I’ve been doing for the past two weeks, because I sure haven’t been doing anything productive.

Are You Experienced (William Sutcliffe):

This book could be a fun read if you are a) not an Indian, b) okay with casual racism, and c) like reading gritty/funny travel stories. I picked it up because the back cover suggested c) , not realizing that a) and b) are at least as necessary. The basic plot is about a guy who hates travel but goes to India because he wants to sleep with his best friend’s girlfriend (someone whose characterization at least some feminist readers might get upset about, although I was content just to think she was a bitch), talks to oh-so-whacky people and gets oh-so-funny diarrhea and gets back to wonderful Britain, so unlike smelly, dirty, horrible India.

I made it through the book only out of sheer boredom. And because I was invested enough in the character to see if he finally got to screw someone (No… technically). It seems to have gotten some good reviews, surprisingly enough, but all by British newspapers, so maybe they just fulfil the three criteria mentioned above; it’s decently written, so if you pretend you’re white and English, I suppose it looks alright. Meanwhile, I’m happy I only spent 20 bucks on it.



Gods of War, by Ashok Banker

I promised a full review of this, and I will get around to it sometime, so leaving this blank for now. Or maybe I’ll just have part 2 of this and include that book I forgot the name of. As a very, very quick review: the opposite of everything I found wrong with the last book, in an almost as bad way. Ashok Banker tries to take on what he sees as the pervasive racism/anti-Hinduism/whatever of western SF and makes something so ridiculous that it would’ve been quite wonderfully funny if he had opted to write the same story in the style of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy instead of an Author Tract. (Essentially, the evil Americans will kill us all!)

The Left Hand of Darkness  (Ursula Le Guin):

This book is one of the first major works of feminist SF, at least according to wiki, and I’d been planning to read it for a while. It was certainly interesting, well-written and it had quite a few new ideas, but… it just wasn’t that much fun. I mean, it wasn’t boring by any definition, but it doesn’t fixate you to the page or get your heart beating or make you so engrossed that you miss your meals, which is what I have come to expect from a really good book. I think the major problem was just that I started reading it with too many expectations; I’d certainly recommend it to anyone who is interested in SF in general, anyway.

There are two fundamental facts that shape the story. One is that the world of Gethen is far colder than our own, and the only inhabitable land is a (relatively speaking, of course) small bit between 2 huge ice sheets. The second and more important factor is that everyone on Gethen is a hermaphrodite, and essentially- but not quite- bisexual. For a few days every month, they go into the state of “kemmer” in which they can shift to either men or women, depending on a variety of factors. Anyone can bear children. This leads to what is a much more “equal” society, in a sense that one can’t ever replicate among “normal” humans. The book explores the implications of this in some detail.

The plot follows Genly Ai, Envoy to the planet Gethen (Winter) of the Ekumen, a collective of planets that guides development and facilitates trade, etc. His mission is to convince them to join the Ekumen, but many of the people he talks to don’t believe him, and the others are paranoid and afraid that if they join they will have to relinquish control over the planet to some galactic bureacracy, although he explains that it does not work that way. We go with him from Karhide, which is a monarchy with a slightly paranoid king, to Orgoreyn, which is basically an efficiently run communist government (complete with a powerful secret police that controls the Parliament and “Voluntary Farms” for political prisoners) and then back in a reckless voyage across the Ice (a stand-in for the uninhabitable wilderness that features in stories of this sort set in the real world). There are various obstacles along the way, and any number of diversions. The structure of the story has several tropes and narrative devices that a literature student can spend a good deal of time on, but I’ll skip over all that and just ask you to read the book. 

Equal Rites (Terry Pratchett):

This is the first of the Witches series in Discworld. I’d finished both the City Watch series (awesome, in almost every book) and the Death series ( pretty good; Susan Sto Helit is wonderful, and Hogfather is the sweetest fantasy I’ve read in a very long time), and I remembered reading somewhere that Granny Weatherwax was something of an analogue of Captain Vimes (still my favourite character in all the Disc), so this was the natural next choice.

Equal Rites, interestingly, is another “feminist” book. It’s about what happens when a wizard’s magic-“male” magic- happens to get passed down to a newborn girl by mistake. it doesn’t mix well with witch’s magic, which is “female magic”, and…well, several anecdotes and outbursts on sexual equality later, the girl manages to become a wizard. I don’t want to insult the book here- it’s quite a fun read- but I can’t honestly pretend that the overall plotline isn’t completely predictable. The basic premise is rather interesting, though, and as with so much of Pratchett’s works the really good parts are the little things, and this book has as many hilarious pieces of dialogue as most of his work.

See also this essay: Why Gandalf never Got Married.

Wyrd Sisters (Terry Pratchett):

This is the second of the Witches series (Book 6 of Discworld) but it clearly isn’t set up as a sequel to Equal Rites, which I was very disappointed by: I would very much have liked to see a little more about Esk, the first female wizard, who we parted with when she was a mere 9 years old. 

The book is… I can’t say a homage to Hamlet/Macbeth so much as something that just happens to borrow from them in fairly obvious ways (although, strangely enough, this is not mentioned on the wiki page). The titular “Wyrd sisters” are the 3 witches Nanny Ogg, Grandma Weatherwax and the young Magrat Garlick, all of whom are very different from each other and all of whose characters are built up quite wonderfully. The basic plot is this: the Duke murders the king in order to usurp the throne after being bullied by his more ambitious wife. The old king’s new born heir winds up with the witches, who give him to a family of traveling actors to raise. The new king turns out to be really bad news, and is slowly going crazy, and the kingdom itself “awakens” and…things happen. I don’t want to spoil it for anyone, although the real twist is only right at the end, and showcases Pratchett’s rather non-traditional (for a fantasy setting, that is) views on destiny and monarchy. The major theme of the book is “the power of words”, or propaganda, as well as the psychological tricks (“headology”) that the witches usually employ to make things happen.

Next up: the remaining Witches novels, as and when I finish them, Gods of War, and the other book I was reading last week which I seem to have forgotten the title of.

PS: Ok, apparently I had a lot more to say than I thought. Either these will really be mini-reviews the next time, or I’ll just do full posts for each book.