As the year draws to a close, I wanted to take this final moment in 2020 to look back at the reading I’ve done this year. Reading is no less a part of writing than the moments spent putting words on paper. It’s research, and what a joyous and wonderful research it is! I’ll be sharing two books that stood out to me — one fiction and one nonfiction — plus a list of honorable mentions. A complete reading list is included at the bottom of this post. I’d love to discuss any of them, so feel free to leave questions or comments.
The Left Hand of Darkness
by Ursula K. Le Guin
The Left Hand of Darkness focuses primarily on Genly Ai, a human serving as a diplomatic envoy to the planet Winter (also known as Gethen) with the mission of convincing them to join the Ekumenical confederation of planets. The Gethenians are androgynous. One physical sex becomes biologically dominant only during mating, known as kemmer, when either partner may become male or female. Ai must overcome not only the cultural differences inherent in traveling to a distant and previously uncontacted planet but the social differences of a place where no perceived gender binary exists.
Yet for all of that, the book takes a decidedly masculine tone. The Gethenians, despite having no specific physical sex or gender are identified with the pronoun “he.” Whether this reflects Ai’s inherent biases, the world Le Guin was writing in, or an intentional subversion of our understanding of the word’s normal usage is up to the reader to decide. Le Guin wrote a wonderful article on the dilemma of pronouns and the restrictions of our language: read it here. It’s a struggle that continues to be fought today not just by writers but within our evolving society.
Le Guin is a master of world and culture building, unsurprisingly, considering her parents were both anthropologists. The main storyline is interspersed with historical and scientific documents, revealing Gethenian culture through not only scientific observation but legend and story. Le Guin creates the illusion of a vast world just beyond our line of sight, rich in history and existence, full of life and breath.
In Shadow and Act (which I will discuss below), Ralph Ellison discusses our heritage as writers. We can’t choose our blood ancestors, but we can choose our writing ancestors. Le Guin is absolutely one of mine. This book made me consider not the stories I wanted to write but what I wanted to say with them. Telling an interesting story isn’t enough. If your reader isn’t changed, isn’t a different person at the end of the story than they were at the beginning, why should they have read it at all? This book, at its core, is not about distant planets or spaceships or telepathy (yeah, that’s in there too). It’s about humanity, about existence, and she guides us to faraway lands and distant stars so that we can better meet ourselves. And by stepping out of our world for a moment into another that is so completely different, we can look back with changed eyes.
I talk about the gods; I am an atheist. But I am an artist too, and therefore a liar. Distrust everything I say. I am telling the truth.*
If you read this book, she will take you through the winding streets of Karhide and across the snowy mountains of Winter. And what you find there might be a fascinating thought-experiment on the possibilities of existence within our galaxy or perhaps it will be something more. Le Guin said it best: “…truth is a matter of the imagination.”
*from the Ace Books 1969 edition with introduction by Ursula K. Le Guin
Shadow and Act by Ralph Ellison
Shadow and Act is a collection of essays, critiques, and interviews discussing everything from literature to society to politics to race to jazz to being a writer. But Ellison is not satisfied with a mere analysis of what is.
He delves further, into the psychological, into the human condition, into the factors and influences that make us who we are regardless of social status or skin color. Ellison rejects the idea that we are trapped within our circumstances but believes that the innate human desire to assert our humanity and simply be, freely, can and must be fulfilled.
Accordingly, each patient, whether white or black, is approached dynamically as a being possessing a cultural and biological past who seeks to make his way toward the future in a world wherein each discovery about himself must be made in the here and now at the expense of hope, pain, and fear — a being who in responding to the complex forces of America has become confused.*
This thread leads us through his discussions of jazz and the genre’s trajectory from small dance halls to a cultural revolution to his discussions of literature where he shares his desire to be seen not as a Black writer but simply a writer expressing his own condition. This desire and his preference for writers like Hemingway earned him criticism for not being loyal to his perceived social group. We are not strangers to these challenges today. How does one simultaneously take pride in being a woman writer while raging against a system that requires such a distinction be made?
Ellison draws back the elusive curtain over the American dilemma, diving into the psychological, rejecting the idea of an America divided simply by color, a tenuous distinction at best, and drawing our attention to the underlying refusal to acknowledge the humanity of all those who live within it. America cannot be seen as two distinct entities but only a deeply flawed whole.
Ellison not only provides insight into a situation that continues to torment America but also shares through his own life the journey we all make as we progress from our beginnings, fighting ever upward to find our place within the world.
*from “Harlem is Nowhere” discussing the Lafargue Psychiatric Clinic
Children of Hurin by J. R. R. Tolkien
The Children of Hurin tells the tale of Turin and his struggle against the ever-present shadow of Morgoth that lies over his family.
I pride myself on having read much of Tolkien’s Middle Earth literature, but this book caught me by surprise. I’ve never known Tolkien to be a particularly poignant writer (his writing can tend to be a little dry), but again and again, I found myself drawn into Turin’s struggle and despair.
If you’re a fan of Tolkien, I would recommend this and “Aldarion and Erendis” from Unfinished Tales.
The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
In The Turn of the Screw, a governess takes on the care of two children in a remote English manor, and as expected in a remote English manor, dark deeds transpire.
It’s a twisting and ambiguous ghost story that will leave you wondering what was and wasn’t real. James gives nothing up easily, and if you’re like me, you’ll dive back in to find the answers yourself.
James does tend to ramble, so if you’re not a fan of long-winded monologues, you may want to pass.
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
Another twisting and psychological horror story, The Haunting of Hill House follows Eleanor who, with a group of others, is invited to visit a house with a dark past.
Like Henry James, Jackson leaves you wondering what is and isn’t real as the line between the preternatural and the psychological grows ever thinner. However, don’t expect white-knuckle reading. Neither this book nor The Turn of the Screw is a scary read.
Moments of Being by Virginia Woolf
Moments of Being is a collection of essays and autobiographical writings. The title is taken from Woolf’s description of life as a series of scenes, vivid and bright with importance, surrounded by a fog of normal existence.
It’s an excellent glimpse into the fragility of life during her era. Her family was haunted by death and tragedy, and she, her sisters, and her mother struggled to carry the heavy emotional burdens placed upon them.
I recommend this book if you want to understand more about Woolf’s style as a writer and the events in her life that influenced her stories.
I could talk forever about these books and their authors. They all left little sparks behind, but another year is coming and with it another stack of books to be read. For now, these will be lovingly tucked onto their shelves for next time.
May the last few days of 2020 be the best yet, and may you have a Happy New Year! I will see you in 2021.
~ R. E. Rule
All 2020 Reads (in no particular order):
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (Lewis Carroll)
Through the Looking Glass (Lewis Carroll)
Sylvie and Bruno (Lewis Carroll)
The Left Hand of Darkness (Ursula K. Le Guin)
A Wizard of Earthsea (Ursula K. Le Guin)
The Colour of Magic (Terry Pratchett)
The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe (C. S. Lewis)
The Turn of the Screw and Other Short Novels (Henry James)
Unfinished Tales (J. R. R. Tolkien)
The Children of Hurin (J. R. R. Tolkien)
Coraline (Neil Gaiman)
Stardust (Neil Gaiman)
The Phantom Toolbooth (Norton Juster)
Holidays on Ice (David Sedaris)
Dark Tales (Shirley Jackson)
The Haunting of Hill House (Shirley Jackson)
Mirrors (Eduardo Galeano)
Shadow and Act (Ralph Ellison)
Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen)
Moments of Being (Virginia Woolf)
The Voyage Out (Virginia Woolf)
The Shining (Stephen King)
Kings of the Wyld (Nicholas Eames)*
H is for Homicide (Sue Grafton)*
*did not finish