Jan 31, 2015

Napa, by James Conaway

Published in 1990, this book is still controversial among Napans for its exposure of the very insular world of Napa winemakers. Conaway traces families both famous and little-known, revealing mental illness, suicide, sibling rupture...you name it. He traces the growth of Napa from a rural backwater that happened to grow good grapes into the international financial and cultural powerhouse that it is today (or rather, that it was in 1990 and is even more so today). There is little in the way of commentary, but his writing makes clear that Conaway supported the agricultural preserve and those who fought for stricter land use and finds the corporate vintners snobbish and arrogant, as well as terrifyingly short-sighted environmentally. Having lived in the valley for two years now, and knowing some of the people mentioned in the book, it's a fascinating peek into that world. And Conaway is a skillful writer, descriptive and engaging. I've also met the man, at an event he did for the bookstore, and found him very charming and intelligent. I'm not surprised people opened up to him the way they must have, but even then, the amount of research that went into this book shows great tenacity. I'm curious about his follow-up book, "The Far Side of Eden," written ten years after "Napa," and there are beginning to be rumors that he is starting research on a third...

Jan 11, 2015

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

It would be impossible - or at least make for an excessively long review - to enumerate the ways in which in this book is incredible. This is science fiction at its best while still being very accessible to a non-sci fi reader. It is a tale truly as old as time: alienation and the other slowly dissolving into understanding, kinship, and friendship.

We are cast into an unknown world just as is our protagonist, Genly Ai, an Envoy of the Ekumen sent to the cold planet Winter to pave the way for an alliance with the 80-odd other planets inhabited by humans. Each world has its own particular brand of human: on Gethen, they are a kind of hermaphrodite. Neuter most of the time, Gethenians go into kemmer about once a month (think an animal in heat) and interaction with other people determines which gender the individual becomes for the sake of mating. Thus can each Gethenian both father and mother children. The impact this has on society is immense, and it is a thread that runs through the book as well as being discussed explicitly a number of times.

"The Left Hand of Darkness" is a journey tale, as well, and a politico-philosophical treatise, and a mythology, and many other things. The writing is superb, descriptive enough to paint a vivid picture without being bogged down. Small wonder this gem won both the Hugo and Nebula awards.

Jan 4, 2015

Sense and Sensibility, by Jane Austen

This is, embarrassingly, the first book I've read by the venerable Jane Austen, and I only picked it up because our book club reads it this month. And I really liked it! We all know my love of the Brits, and while Austen's humor (or should I say "humour"?) is much subtler than Pratchett or Gaiman or even Kate Atkinson, I still found it to be delightful. The book is a parody of upper class British life, the idleness in which they lived their lives while trying to glean every possible bit of information about each other by the most roundabout means. After all, when all your business interests are operated by underlings and maids do all the cleaning and cooking and child-rearing, what else is there to do but gossip?

S&S, as my Austen-loving friend calls it, is about two sisters, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, and their marital circumstances. We follow them both through heartbreak and new love and old love and slow-to-start love as they navigate the ridiculous people amongst whom they find themselves. Austen's descriptions of her characters are my favorite part, and the more she dislikes them the juicier the description. I see how they have caught the imagination for so many years, and look forward to reading more of her famous oeuvre.