Saturday, April 20, 2019

The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. Le Guin

I have written before about Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea books, which are deep in my literary DNA. I read others of her books as I came across them, never seeking them out or adding them to my shelves. I think I was comparing them all to Earthsea, and found them wanting.

As I've been reading more science fiction and fantasy, I've come to understand better Ursula Le Guin's place in the canon. I've also learned that some of the books I read along the way are part of her "Hainish Cycle." I decided that this was the year I would read the Cycle (it's not a series, as I understand it, more a loosely-connected cycle of stories). Her Hainish books have just been republished in two fat Library of America volumes. I was tempted by them, because they include stories and articles as well as introductory materials, but I find those kinds of heavy compendiums hard to read. That's true, but it was also an excuse to start collecting the individual books, which has substantially increased my TBR stacks and decimated my book buying budget.

I decided to start with The Left Hand of Darkness, first published in 1969, purely because I came across it first in a bookstore. I read an article that Charlie Jane Anders wrote about it for the Paris Review, as well as a post she wrote about the Cycle on the Tor website. The articles convinced I'd made a good choice, but also suggested I'd been too quick to dismiss those other books of hers (and added more books to my shelves).

I have been slowly reading The Left Hand of Darkness over the past week, stretching it out, both because it is such an amazing book, and because I didn't want it to end. It is the story of two men. Genly Ai has been sent as the First Envoy from the Ekumen to the world of Gethen. The Ekumen are something like Star Trek's Federation (and written years before the TV show) or the United Nations, a collection of planets bound together by treaty, to share knowledge. They seek other inhabited planets to join them, but again like Star Trek they only invite and offer - they have their own Prime Directive. Ai has spent two years in Karhide, one of Gethen's established countries, unable to make much progress despite the support of the prime minister Therem rem ir Estraven. Estraven has tried to help Ai understand both the local politics and the fraught situation with the neighboring country of Orgoreyn. It is collectively governed, unlike Karhide with its monarchy. If Karhide is not interested in an alliance with the Ekumen, perhaps Orgoreyn will be.

The narration of the story alternates between Ai and Estraven. There are also interspersed short chapters of Gethen stories, history, myths, even a section from the first Ekumen Observer to Gethen. This is to me one of Le Guin's greatest strengths as a storyteller: she creates worlds with the weight of history, tradition, language, which feel real and three-dimensional. They have a past as well as a present. She never overwhelms the reader with information, we discover it - and she trusts us enough not to explain everything. Here Ai is learning about Karhide, and then Orgoreyn. But he is human, he judges things and people through his own perceptions. I appreciated that Le Guin made him fallible, imperfect. There are fundamental misunderstandings, on both sides, which cause enormous problems for both Ai and Estaven. It takes Ai much longer to realize his own mistakes.

The Left Hand of Darkness won both the Hugo and Nebula awards, and I can absolutely see why. So did one of the later books in the series, The Dispossessed. I think there are some stories that return to Gethen, but I am looking forward to discovering the other worlds that Ursula Le Guin created for the Ekumen.

Saturday, April 13, 2019

A Nurse at the Front, The First World War Diaries of Sister Edith Appleton

August 13 [1915]

Last night was remarkable for two terrific explosions which woke us at 2 a.m. and frightened us out of our wits. People have various theories of what they were - Zep[pelin] bombs, mines being exploded or our own guns a field or two away. The whole building trembled and rattled with the vibration. Have been feeling thoroughly nervy all day, silly fool that I am.

August 14

Evacuated nearly all patients, so had half day off duty and spent it at Mont des Cats with Miss Congleton. Delightful sunny day with splendid views all over Pop[eringhe], Ypres, Vlamertinghe. A Roman Catholic padre left his binoculars us, so we had a wonderful clear view beyond La Bassée, and the colours of the sky at sunset were glorious. As it got dark we saw them sending up coloured rockets from the aerodrome. . . Shells were bursting over our trenches south of Ypres. The picture was vivid, and the huge volume of smoke and muck shot up into the air gave a suggestion of what was happening to our Tommies. All the time the khaki-coloured ambulances were creeping to and fro, bringing the wounded in. 

This was one of the books that Mary Robinette Kowal cited as background reading for Ghost Talkers, and I put it straight on to my reading list. I've read only one other diary from World War I (as opposed to memoirs), and it was also from a nurse, the American Helen Dore Boylston's "Sister." Like Boylston, Edith Appleton was a trained nurse, though she had years more experience before she joined Queen Alexandra's Imperial Nursing Service Reserve. A month later, she was at her first posting in France, and by February she had moved to the front. She served in hospitals and casualty stations across France and Belgium. After the Armistice, she remained to help with the transport of convalescent soldiers. The diary she kept was apparently sent home on a regular basis to her mother. In 2008, her family built a website to honor her memory, and the publication of her diaries followed.

It is clear from the entries just how hard Appleton and the other nurses worked, and how exhausted she often was. The exhaustion wasn't just physical either. Appleton took every chance she could to get away from the work, noting long walks and picnics, and writing about the "splendid views" and the scenery around her - as well as the contrast with the columns of "smoke and muck" and the long lines of wounded and dead. She appreciated simple comforts where she found them, sharing biscuits and chocolate with a friend on a walk, relaxing with a book for a few minutes. When she was assigned to a unit temporarily housed in a wing of a "lunatic asylum," the director offered the nurses the use of the patients' bathroom.
I don't fancy bathing in company, but since I have not sat in water deeper than an inch since last year, the temptation is great. . .Three of us went up to another part of the asylum at 7 a.m, and had a deep BATH! Up to our necks in water - glorious! A dear old nun came trotting in when I was in my bath and felt to see if the water was the right heat. She thought the bath was too full and pulled the plug by a patent in the floor. I was sitting on the hole where the water runs away and was sucked hard into it!
Even more than a century later, it is difficult to read about the suffering of Appleton's patients. She didn't go into gruesome detail, perhaps because she was writing for her mother, but she didn't gloss over things either. She recorded the first use of gas in the trenches, and its effects on the men coming in to her ward. She noteed the deaths of individual patients who somehow stood out amidst all the carnage. She tried to give them all a clean handkerchief, because that small thing brought them great comfort. This is not a comfortable book to read - and it shouldn't be - but it is a wonderful record of one part of the Great War by a brave, observant and compassionate woman.

Sunday, April 7, 2019

Take Out, by Margaret Maron

When Margaret Maron announced that she was retiring from writing, it finally motivated me to try her first series, police procedurals centered around Lt. Sigrid Harald of the New York Police Department. I have for many years been a big fan of the Deborah Knott series set in the fictional Colleton County, North Carolina. I re-read the books regularly, and I was sorry when Maron announced that the 20th, Long Upon the Land, would be the last. I've gotten very attached to Judge Deborah Knott and her extended family.

I had already read Maron's two stand-alone novels, Bloody Kin and Last Lessons of Summer, both set in North Carolina as well. The events in Bloody Kin take place before the first Deborah story and though it doesn't feature the Knott family, it introduces people who play important parts in the series. I also tracked down two books of her short stories, the covers of which I find unsettling:

I remember picking up one of the Sigrid Harald books at the library at some point, but it was late in the series and concerned the death of a major character. That didn't seem a good place to start, but it also didn't inspire me to look for the earlier books. I finally "met" Sigrid in Three-Day Town, where Deborah and her husband Dwight spend a belated honeymoon in New York (and of course stumble into a murder case). Sigrid, whose grandmother lives in Colleton County, then comes to North Carolina in the following book, The Buzzard Table. When Margaret Maron wrote a final book for Sigrid's series, I decided it was time to complete my collection of her books and finally read those stories.

I enjoyed the series, if not quite as much as the Knott books. I appreciate a police series with a woman lead, and these also include minimal gore. However, Take Out is not the place to start the series, if anyone were inclined to start a nine-book series with the last book (I couldn't, myself). It begins with One Coffee With, where Sigrid and her team are called to investigate a murder in the art department of Vanderlyn College. They follow the familiar police procedural format, as different members of the team follow up leads under Sigrid's directions. There are personal asides as well, such as Sigrid's relationship with her mother, a Pulitzer-prize winning photojournalist. Sigrid's father, also an NYPD detective, was killed in the line of duty when she was a child, and we gradually learn more about his death and her parents' lives.

I don't know if this counts as a spoiler, but I'll leave a couple of extra lines just in case.

We also see Sigrid's slowly-developing relationship with Oscar Nauman, whom she meets during the investigation at the college. He is the chair of the department and also one of the leading artists of the 20th century. Sigrid is a prickly loner who doesn't want to get involved with Nauman, but he gradually wins her over (and not in a creepy demanding way). But then, just as they settle into their relationship, he is killed in a car accident in California. Sigrid collapses into grief, and that book (Past Imperfect) was really hard to read. She also learns that Nauman has left his entire estate to her. With the paintings alone she is suddenly rich, yet also responsible for his legacy.

Take Out opens about a year after his death - though oddly before the events in Three-Day Town (and as a reference to "the Towers" makes clear, before 9/11). The case involves two men found dead on a bench, with containers of take-out food between them. The lasagna and fettuccine they shared turn out to be laced with coumadin, a blood thinner. One of the victims was a homeless man, Matty, a drug addict whose godmother (a Mafia widow) regularly sent boxes of take-out to the park bench. There seems to be no connection with the other man, Jack, a retired stagehand. The investigation plays out against a background of disturbing news for Sigrid: a young man has arrived from Germany, claiming to be Nauman's biological son and therefore entitled to his estate. There is also a neat little subplot linking back to Corpus Christmas, set in a not-very-exciting historic house museum. Maron writes in an "Author's Note" that "those pictures that had been left stashed in the basement of the Breul House...kept begging to be taken out of that trunk," and partly inspired this book.

Like the other books in the series, Take Out feels a bit old-fashioned to me, and not just because Maron deliberately set it in the 1990s. I think I will pick up these books when I am in the mood for a police procedural. I re-read the Knott books for the setting and the characters, as much as for the cases that Deborah and Dwight investigate. Actually, writing this makes me think it may be time for another visit back to Colleton County.

Monday, April 1, 2019

Death by Dumpling, by Vivien Chien

This mystery is set in an enclosed shopping area called Asia Village, in Cleveland, Ohio. It is narrated by 27-year-old Lana Lee, who impulsively quit her job one day. "You know in the movies where someone says, 'You can't fire me, I quit!' . . . maybe don't do that in real life. Unless you don't mind working a a server in your parents' Chinese restaurant for the rest of your life." Her parents are thrilled to have her back at the Ho-Lee Noodle House. Lana isn't, but she needs to pay rent on the apartment she shares with her best friend Megan and her other bills.

I liked Lana's voice from the start. "Things to know about me: I'm half English, half Taiwanese, and no, I don't know karate. I'm definitely not good at math and I don't know how to spell your name in Chinese. . . Oh, and I have a problem with doughnuts."

On the day the story opens, Lana takes a lunch-time delivery to Asia Village's owner, Mr. Feng, in his office. As she arrives, another tenant named Kimmy Tran storms out and informs Lana that he is raising rents on the stores by 15%. Her parents won't be able to afford that. Lana takes the bag of food in to Mr. Feng and chats with him for a few moments, then returns to the restaurant. A couple of hours later, her mother's best friend Esther Chin rushes into the restaurant to find Mrs. Lee. She brings the shocking news that Mr. Feng was found dead in his office. Even worse, he died from an allergic reaction to the shrimp dumplings that Lana delivered to him. But everyone in the Village knew of his deadly allergy. Peter, the cook at the Noodle House, was always very careful in preparing and cooking his food. Lana took Mr. Feng his usual order of pork dumplings, so where did the shrimp dumplings come from? When the police arrive, Peter is taken into custody. But Lana finds that fingers are also pointing her way, since she delivered the food to Mr. Feng. She and her roommate Megan decide that the police are on the wrong track, especially in suspecting Peter, so they decide to do some investigating on their own. Megan even buys Lana a book about how to become a private detective. The actual detective in charge of the case, the dark and brooding Lt. Adam Trudeau, takes a very dim view of this.

I enjoyed this story very much. It was interesting to explore the Village, with its community of owners running a variety of stores, and some of their loyal customers. As in any community, there are alliances and sometimes hostilities. There is also history between the members, which plays a big part in the story. It was fun too following Lana and Megan's detective work. At one point, Lana starts the kind of "motive, means and opportunity" list that comes up so often in Golden Age mysteries. However, she and Megan quickly lose control of it, with additions and deletions scribbled all over the place. Mine would look the same, I'm sure. And I enjoyed the family dynamics between Lana and her parents, and her over-achieving older sister Anna May as well (a law student).

This was a very satisfying mystery, with a vivid sense of place. Despite the restaurant setting, there is no food porn here, but people are always eating, and I did find myself thinking of noodles more than once. I am pleased that there are two more books in the series, Dim Sum of All Fears and Murder Lo Mein (that one published just last week).