Reading Ursula K. Le Guin

The cover of "The Left Hand of Darkness" depicts a lunar-like surface with two opposite-facing profiles carved out of rock, against a dark sky.

By Eric L.

I read a lot of great authors, but that’s because I read great books! As we have been celebrating Women’s History Month, and HCLS has recommended a cornucopia of great material about and by women, I’d like to recommend the amazing Ursula K. Le Guin. 

Le Guin made a name for herself in the male-dominated world of sci-fi and fantasy half a century ago, and she wrote a great book about gender fluidity way before many others broached the topic. Le Guin said she recognized the ability to tell complex tales through the work of genre writer Philip K. Dick. Later, she openly criticized the way he wrote some female characters. Dick agreed, they became friends, and he thanked Le Guin for her influence on his subsequent works. I’d contend that in itself amounts to progress! 

A great starting point for Ursula K. Le Guin is watching Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin on Kanopy. It provides a great introduction to the writer and her work. The interviews with the witty and charming Le Guin are terrific, as are the conversations with Margaret Atwood and Neil Gaiman and others about her influence on their writing and the genre. Gaiman astutely points out that the Harry Potter series owes a great deal to Le Guin’s Earthsea series.  

As I alluded to before, her most famous work The Left Hand of Darkness (also available in eBook and eAudiobook format) is a groundbreaking work, not just for the sci-fi/fantasy genre, but also for challenging our conceptions pf western masculinity and of western masculinity and femininity in a clever and subtle way. The protagonist, an envoy to the planet nicknamed Winter, struggles to understand a gender-neutral people using the social constructs of his own culture. Left Hand centers political intrigue and a forced epic journey across an icy planet while giving glimpses at the envoy’s gradual enlightenment. The drama and action of an arduous journey mirrors the personal journey of the protagonist and the relationships he builds.  

The Left Hand of Darkness is worth borrowing just to read Le Guin’s amazing introduction concerning science fiction and writing in general. Over the years, she has taken criticism for using the pronoun “he” for the gender-neutral characters in the book. To which she replied that just because the book was finished, it didn’t mean she was finished learning. I like this sort of thinking, the idea that we can all grow more and move forward. 

The cover for The Dispossessed depicts a man standing on a barren wasteland, looking towards another purple-toned planet with the sun peeking over its edge from behind, and a red-orange sky.

Le Guin’s other popular work The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia may be the perfect book for now, as the story of two opposing political views on how best to organize a society – collectivism versus individualism. The book examines power and extremes, and interrogates the best way for a society to temper those impulses. 

The protagonist Shevek (all names are computer generated) is a scientist from the anarchist commune-like planet, Anarres. Against the wishes of many of his people, he takes the opportunity to collaborate with the scientists of A-lo, on the planet Urras. The latter is a more individualistic, capitalist society. Shevek is attracted to the opportunity to further pursue his work, as he has begun to suspect that his society has some faults. Le Guin uses the protagonist’s perspective and experience to compare the two societies. The chapters alternate between Shevek’s youth and adulthood on Anarres and his present situation in A-lo. I thought this a clever technique, in a sort of nuanced compare and contrast story, but perhaps that’s just my conflicted mind? 

I believe Le Guin’s biases are evident, perhaps intentionally, but the book offers a provocative look at entrenched beliefs. The two societies are located on different planets and only know each other via their society’s own information (sometimes called propaganda), very similar to the way each of us arrives at our perspectives, beliefs, and, yes, biases. Le Guin cleverly has each society colloquially reduce the other to one-word epithets; the “propertarians” and “anarchists.” It’s certainly easier to believe we understand each other when we reduce ourselves to singular adjectives. 

This would be a great book to have people with opposing viewpoints read and discuss. The fact that Le Guin’s father was an anthropologist is evident in her work. Lastly, I’m inclined to conclude that Ursula K. Le Guin believes any thoughtful ideology should begin with a deeper understanding of each other and the forces that create fear and hate. 

Eric is a DIY Instructor and Research Specialist at HCLS Elkridge Branch. He enjoys reading, films, music, doing nearly anything outside, and people.  

Tuesday Mooney Talks to Ghosts

The book cover depicts Tuesday Mooney running in silhouette at the center of a series of concentric circles, with buildings, a cat, birds, and streetlamps on the edges of the circles.

By Becky W.

Did anyone else have the experience of playing hours upon hours of capture the flag when they were young? I remember how a game consisting of just two bandanas, a few neighbors, and a backyard made me feel as though I were on a grand adventure spanning the globe. Kate Racculia’s Tuesday Mooney Talks to Ghosts brings me right back to that simple sense of adventure. As an unlikely cast of characters race to solve an eccentric billionaire’s high-stakes, citywide scavenger hunt, I couldn’t help but let my imagination wander.

When Tuesday walks into a room, people can’t help but notice her. A tall, broad, pale woman, dressed all in black. Perhaps it’s her Wednesday Addams appearance or the fact that she rolls her eyes at the thought of socialization, but Tuesday comes across as a textbook loner. She has a good job (protected by her cubicle), a fine home (stocked with X-Files DVDs), and a long-time friend (who is always the first to text). After the death of billionaire Vince Pryce, puzzle-obsessed Tuesday abandons her content life to join half the city of Boston in solving an elaborate scavenger hunt with the hope of wining a share of Pryce’s fortune. As more clues are uncovered, Tuesday becomes allied with a group of fellow hunters: Dex, her quick-witted best friend; Nathaniel Arches, an overly charming heir; Dory, Tuesday’s lonely teenage neighbor; and Abby, a childhood friend reported missing as a teen, but whose ghost managed to follow Tuesday into adulthood.

Tuesday Mooney Talks to Ghosts is an incredibly fun, quirky, imaginative book filled with great characters and an epic plot. Racculia’s use of treasure hunt whimsy juxtaposed with the common burdens of student loans and sellout jobs, makes this a relatable, charming story of adventure and friendship.

Tuesday Mooney Talks to Ghosts is also available as an ebook on Libby/OverDrive.

Becky is an Adult Instructor and Research Specialist at the HCLS East Columbia Branch who enjoys art and everything science.

Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse

A Navajo woman dressed in jeans, leather jacket, and tradition Navajo footwear and wrappings stands on the roof of an old red pickup truck, holding a shotgun and a long knife. Lightnight arcs across the image, with dust yellow storm clouds behind.

Review by Kristen B.

Meet Maggie Hoskie: monster hunter, Navajo (Diné) clan warrior, and first person narrator of Rebecca Roanhorse’s debut novel. In Trail of Lightning, the world as we know it has been mostly destroyed by earthquakes and subsequent floods. A strange thing happened during that time: Navajo history, gods, and legends came back to life and walls appeared around what was the reservation, protecting Dinétah from the worst of the predations happening in the outside world. It was something of a mixed blessing, for while traditional Diné clan life continued stronger than ever, it also brought back the scary parts of legend along with the good. As the book opens, Maggie doubts if she’s one of the good guys or just another one of the monsters she hunts. (Just to note: given the nature of the story, this book is chock-full of fairly graphic violence.)

This quick-paced, smart-mouthed action-adventure story takes place entirely within the Navajo world. The book opens with Maggie chasing a monster across the high desert hills, one who had kidnapped a young girl. We learn that Maggie’s clan powers include swiftness and battle rage, which serve her well in her vocation. In the aftermath, we meet her honorary grandfather Tah and Tah’s actual grandson Kai, who may or may not be a magician but is definitely something of a fashion plate. Tah practices the traditional scheme of grandparents everywhere by throwing his two favorite young folks together, in hopes of friendship and maybe even romance.

Maggie’s life is further complicated when her old friend Mai’i (Coyote) turns up at her trailer asking for a favor. Coyote plays his usual trickster part, but honestly, he’s only trying to make things better. The story becomes a race to find and eliminate a growing threat to Dinétah, which eventually involves a wide range of locals and legends. Maggie ends up having to deal directly with her one-time mentor and lover, Neizhgani, the (sort of) god of lightning. Maggie achieves some clarity and closure in the end, but it is a hard won truth that leaves everyone a little heartsore.

I had visited the Navajo reservation shortly before reading this book, and I could picture the locations clearly with the rock formations and scrubby landscape. Roanhorse is Black and Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo, and her husband and daughter are Navajo. She uses Diné terms for the clans and their powers, for the legends and gods, and it’s as strange in its own way as any other fantasy setting. This is the language of the WWII Code Talkers, which no one else in the world could decipher. It’s a powerful way to display Native American culture, asking the reader to figure out terminology from context without a glossary or other appendix. Roanhorse uses the place and language to good effect, creating a sense of other-ness that’s actually grounded in reality.

If you love this book as much as I do, I also recommend the sequel, Storm of Locusts. Maggie ventures out into the wider world … in a story no less filled with monsters and companions for the journey.

Kristen B. has worked for HCLS for more than 15 years, and currently hosts the Books on Tap discussion group at Hysteria Brewing Company. She loves reading, Orioles baseball, and baking.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople

At the top, it reads "From Taika Waititi director of What We Do in the Shadows." Across an almost clear blue sky is the title "Hunt for the Wilderpeople" flanked by antlers.  Three figures are shown in close up profile - one is an adolescent boy wearing a cheetah print trucker hat, the next is a bearded man wearing a hunting hat, and the last one is a boar that appears to be mid-laugh.  Across the bottom, there are grasslands and forested mountains shrouded in mist.

Review by Kimberly

Hunt for the Wilderpeople is an adventure-comedy-drama that follows rebellious twelve-year-old Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) and gruff woodsman Hec (Sam Neill) on an unexpected journey through the wild bush of New Zealand. Ricky Baker has been dubbed a “real bad egg” foster kid whose crimes include spitting, throwing rocks, kicking stuff, loitering, and graffiti. This is his last chance to make it work, and he is not happy about it. The character of Ricky Baker personifies the way I remember adolescence feeling – being confident and cocky on the outside, but searching for a place to belong. It is a simple story told well with the gorgeous setting of New Zealand as backdrop. 

Director Taika Waititi (Jojo Rabbit, Boy, What We Do in the Shadows) has an uncanny ability for storytelling. He strives to change the conversation by addressing the plights of those who have been marginalized and ignored in mainstream movies. He then captures their narrative in a touching, yet playful, way. He doesn’t adhere to standard tropes or stereotypes. Waititi creates a quirky and sympathetic characters that leaves you rooting for the underdog.

I found this coming-of-age tale funny, charming, and intoxicating. It doesn’t shy away from hard topics – delving into themes of foster care, abuse, and grief. However, it never takes itself too seriously: it is rife with banter and one-liners that are perfect fodder for inside jokes – and may even have you adopting some kiwi slang.  This film has the makings of a cult classic. Taking my cue from Ricky Baker, I’ll summarize my review with a haiku:

Its one of a kind

Finds beauty in the heartbreak

Nature meets gangster

If you watch this FILM,
please COME BACK and SHARE WITH US
your haiku BELOW.

Find Hunt for the Wilderpeople on Kanopy

Hunt for the Wilderpeople is rated PG-13 for thematic elements including violent content, and for some language.

Kimberly is a DIY Instructor and Research Specialist at the HCLS Elkridge Branch.  She enjoys reading, photography, crafting, and baking.