The books I read in November 2021 chronological order.

#1: The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

I first read The Left Hand of Darkness during the summer after my sophomore year of college. It’s the book that first got me into Le Guin and science fiction as a whole. When I first read the book, I was unhappy and lonely, commuting for a total of over three hours a day to a depressing internship. The book helped.

Anyway, reading this book again five years later, I realized how much I had forgotten. I actually found the book a harder read than I remembered it being – maybe I’m out of the science fiction mindset? I haven’t read much science fiction in the past two years, and I haven’t read much Le Guin since 2019. (2019 was the year I resolved, and failed, to read all of Le Guin’s books. Nevertheless, I read most of her books that year.)

Though it was more of a slog than I’d remembered, I feel like I got the book more this time. In my day-to-day life, I spend a lot (A LOT) of time thinking about gender and gender norms. The reigning motif of duality meant more to me this time. (“Light is the left hand of darkness” – what a cool phrase!) The use of he/him pronouns seemed even more egregious than they did on my first read, but despite that, the book seemed even more groundbreaking, especially given when Le Guin wrote it. It’s worth reading, in my opinion, as both a revolutionary product of its time and also as just really good science fiction.

I thought this discussion of The Left Hand of Darkness was a great read. One thing I learned from this article was that Le Guin received a brutal rejection letter for The Left Hand of Darkness manuscript! It's absolutely wild to read this letter after reading and loving this book.

#2: The Tree of Heaven by May Sinclair

Next, I read The Tree of Heaven by May Sinclair. Generally, I find May Sinclair’s novels deeply frustrating, but also deeply addictive. This one was no different. I also don’t like war books, but I liked this one. Actually, it was possibly the best war book I’ve ever read. The Tree of Heaven takes place before and during WWII, and was actually published in 1917 – before WWII even ended! Yet somehow, Sinclair still writes with a remarkable distance to the war. And for the most part, she’s able to ascribe to some of her characters a profound ambivalence about the war. (And other topics.) I think that’s really remarkable.

In all of the May Sinclair books I’ve read, including this one, one or more of the characters have this concept of honor that’s really, really annoying to me. This (Victorian?) honor is expressed as a refusal to be open and communicative in service of saving face/saving someone else from exposure even if it was their fault and they never asked for it. In fact, this honor has a lot in common with Le Guin’s invented concept of “shifgrethor.”

#3: Bringing up Bebe by Pamela Druckerman

I read Bringing up Bebe on my Kobo e-reader, as I was traveling for Thanksgiving. (I’d started The Tenant of Wildfell Hall before leaving on my trip, but decided to only bring my e-reader –no physical books – to save space. And unfortunately, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall wasn’t available in ebook form from my library.)

Published in 2012, the book was a really interesting look at French vs. American parenting culture. Though, what stood out to me the most was the author’s thoroughly depressing take on feminism and equality within a marriage. Americans, she thinks, should really just lay off the feminism in order to have a happier marriage. Two choice quotes:

That’s some depressing, infantalizing stuff!

When I was reading the book on a plane en route to Arizona for Thanksgiving, I got a firsthand look at how popular this book is. The woman sitting next to me (her husband and kids were sitting in the adjacent row) presumably saw what I was reading and asked me, with no other introduction, if I had kids. We then proceeded to have a nice chat about the book – she read it before she had kids, and absolutely loved it.

#4: Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte

Still in Arizona, I browsed my e-reader for books to check out and decided on Agnes Grey. I loved this book. It might just have been my favorite book of all the Bronte books I’ve read. Most basically, the book is like Jane Eyre if Jane didn’t come from a tragic childhood and if Rochester was just a regular, not rich guy with no wife in the attic or dark past. The book was totally devoid of the gothic elements that mark Jane Eyre (Charlotte) and Wuthering Heights (Emily). I read it in just a few days, and it made me so excited to pick up The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (Anne Bronte’s other novel) again when I returned to California.