Utopia by St. Sir Thomas More

Utopia Cover

Caidyn – 3/5
Chantel – 2.5/5

In terms of the writing, Book 1 was a lot more interesting than Book 2. Book 1 was a discourse of what was wrong in typically monarchical Western civilization while Book 2 was a manifesto of what Utopia was like, from their legal system, or lack thereof, to their religion. As a book, it wasn’t terribly interesting, even if the ideas put forth were.

What Sir Thomas More had in mind, however, weren’t ideas that every one of his time would agree upon. In fact, they are closer to our modern ideas in a lot of ways. When reading this, one can see a very odd combination of socialism/egalitarianism, communism,  and utilitarianism, all while keeping with traditional Christian ideas of brotherly love, the dangers of idleness, and how good works can help the whole society. These ideas don’t seem to come together. Communism called for the erasure of religion. Egalitarianism just isn’t inherent in how Christianity gets played out in reality, despite Christ’s teachings.

It’s not uncommon to read a book written a long time ago and find that things are similar to modern life. One thing in particular that stood out for me (Chantel) was the concept of slavery in Utopia, they weren’t people brought over from a foreign land against their will. No, they were people who’d committed crimes in Utopia. In a way, it’s not much different than our own prison systems. Is it humane to strip a criminal of their rights as opposed to an innocent person? Well, when things like adultery are severely punished according to the penal system, then maybe it’s not a perfect system. Just like our own system isn’t perfect.

When it comes to crime in Utopia, there’s definitely an undercurrent of strong Christian values which isn’t surprising. Sir Thomas More was incredibly religious and it shows. Things like premarital sex and adultery were the most shameful in the land of Utopia. From my (Caidyn’s) perspective, it seems that More says that Christianity is inherent to all people. At least, all “civilized” people. The Utopians are civilized, but around this time period, people were discovering new worlds full of people who had practices that were distinctly non-Christian.

There are many interesting ideas in this book that Sir Thomas More puts forth and ideas that I think are relevant even to this day. That’s incredibly progressive at the time he wrote this in the 16th Century. However, we all have our own vision of what a true utopia would be and this is just one man’s vision.

I’m Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid

I'm Thinking of Ending Things cover

Caidyn – 4/5

I honestly don’t know what I want to say about this book. I don’t even know how I feel about this book. It’s odd because it’s not as if I disliked it. I thought it was very interesting and intriguing and it kept me going from start to finish. Sure, I guessed the ending very early on. Yet there’s just so much more to this book. It’s one of those thrillers that’s not really a thriller. It’s not even a slow burn. Reid almost writes it as if you should know what happens in the end, however, the way that it’s written is that you honestly will want to go back and reread it from start to finish. It’s cleverly written. Who even wrote the book? Who is the narrator? Is it who we think it is or is it someone else? And the ending completely fucks with you, at least it fucked with me.

I didn’t like it, but I didn’t dislike it. I’m in an odd moot point where I’m at a loss for how I exactly feel. The whole book, I felt abstracted and dissociated from the characters. It was as if I was dissociating from the book as I read it, floating above the scene and pages. There was no real emotional pull, yet I wanted to find out what happened next. Yet, I knew the ending. It wasn’t difficult to guess.

The more I talk about it (or type about it, really) the less I feel that I understand the book as a whole. This has to be the cleverest book I’ve read in a long time, at least in the mystery department. This is a very odd little book, and I’m sticking with three stars for right now. Although I may bump it up as I think about it more.

Newer part

The same day I read this, I decided to reread it. And, I took the advice the book gives you (along with the advice of a brilliant review; Ed Lorn is the tops so you should find it). I started from the very last pages of the book and worked myself backward, chapter by chapter, to the beginning. And then, from there, I reread the first page and the last couple of chapters. I never do this with books. If I’ve read it once, I don’t feel the need to reread it right away. But with this one, I had to figure it out. I had to know exactly how it all worked together.

God, this was an amazing book. It was tightly woven, but you can’t appreciate it until you’ve read it a second time. You just have to go through the book multiple times to really understand it, and that’s so rare in a thriller. For that reason, I’m bumping my rating up another star.

Chantel – 2/5

I don’t like thrillers, but as soon as I heard about this book I was interested. I really wanted to like this book and I read it a lot faster than I expected to. I had to know what was going on and for that, I’ll give credit to Reid. He kept me reading until the last page to see if I was right about what was going on or if he was going to surprise me with something new. Up until the point where they arrived at the parent’s house, I was enjoying it, then it got really grotesque, then it lost me completely after that.

I won’t be including any spoilers but the reason why I didn’t like the book was the reveal at the end. I predicted it, then I hoped for something better, and unfortunately it was exactly what I had predicted. I also wasn’t a huge fan of the actual reveal, I think it’s overused and I would like to see new ways of fucking with the audience than this.

I know Caidyn reread the book immediately right after and it was suggested to do so, but I had no interest in rereading the book.

I’m glad I read it because it was on my radar of books I wanted to read and it was a newer book I’d heard good things about, but I was ultimately disappointed with the reveal and wished it could’ve been something more original.

Discussion

Very obviously, we disagree about this book. On Goodreads, the average rating is 3.3 stars. Right in the middle. That breaks down to 15% for five stars, 30% for four stars, 30% for three stars, 16% for two stars, and 7% for one star. Even out of people I’m (Caidyn) friends with or following on there, there’s a huge discrepancy with how people thought of this book. It’s not exactly an easy book to read and not a likable one either. It uses common tropes in the mystery genre and tries to put a unique spin on them.

Discussion Questions (Please try to avoid spoilers or clearly highlight spoilers):

  • When it comes to twists is it better to be surprised or is it better to figure it out and see how it falls into place?
  • What were ways Iain Reid used to convey suspense?
  • What do you think of the ending of the book? Do you fall more with Caidyn, Chantel, or some hybrid of the two?

A Mind of Its Own: A Cultural History of the Penis by David M. Friedman

A-Mind-of-Its-Own-Cover

Caidyn – 3/5

Hm. How to rate this book? At times, it was very good. And at times, it wasn’t. Usually at the same time, as odd as that sounds.

It’s a very informative book. It starts in the BCE and makes its way through to modern times. A whole scope, or as much as one can over in an overview of the history of the penis. There are many things that Friedman left out, I’m sure. Otherwise, this would have been a six-volume book rather than six chapters.

So, this was good. Informative, accessible, easy to understand. Hallmarks of a well-done nonfiction book that’s marketed to the general population. This isn’t one for academics alone. Anyone can understand it if they open the book and go ahead and give it a try.

However — and I’m sure anyone reading this expected this — it wasn’t great. What this book needed, for all the nice things I said about it, is a damn good editor.

For one, the chapters are far too long. Almost all of them top out at 50+ pages per chapter. If it’s not a textbook or a properly literary novel, those chapters are far too long for a book meant for the general public. I can’t think of anyone who just picked this book up for a bit of light reading would stick with something this long chapter-wise. So, there’s one thing.

Not only that, but the chapters are way too rambly. They start at one point, then they go to another that’s loosely connected to the first. And then off to another topic. And another. And another. Because the chapters are too long. A good editor would have shortened the chapters, then also split up the chapters into briefer topics.

There were more than a few things wrong besides chapter length and the issues with staying on topic. The other thing was with having no introduction or conclusion. Any good nonfiction book has a point to it, one that’s made and summed up in those. It establishes the credibility of the author, then lets me know the thesis of the whole thing. It’s pointless to have something without a thesis statement, and this book completely lacked any sort of focus, starting with not having an introduction.

A good editor, in my opinion, would have done one of a few things.

1) Had Friedman add an introduction and conclusion to it, then probably made little mini-thesis statements for each chapter so I knew what to expect. That’s just Nonfiction 101.

2) Don’t add those things, but shorten the chapters down. Keep all of the topics, but make it so they’re like mini-essays. You know, keep it focused and like a small essay on a specific topic.

3) Not jump around in the chapters. Again, keep the different topics and how they spaced out, but actually make it so it was time specific. One chapter on BCE times. Another on the Middle Ages specifically. Another on the 1900s. I mean, talk about all the conflicting viewpoints that were going on at the same time, not just focus on specific things and I have to make the connections that happened about 100 pages ago with the huge length of chapters.

So, to sum my thoughts up, a good and interesting book, but it needed some work to tighten it up before being published.

Chantel – 3/5

I added a star for the interesting topic alone.

Overall, I found the topic interesting but it was really the formatting of the book itself I had a problem with. The chapters were far too long, over fifty pages each, when they could’ve been condensed to smaller chapters that were easier to digest.

There was also a lack of citations. There were statements in the book that stood out, just a few, without citations that made me question their validity. That’s just something to be aware of when making such statements. Even if it might be statistically true, a citation where I could go look up that article or study would make me doubt it less.

There were some horrific things in this book and some really interesting things. Starting at the beginning of history to modern day is a huge amount of time to cover and I think this was a good overview, but when it comes to specifics a book could’ve been written on every chapter in this book. I found that the earlier chapters where he explored the earlier moments in history were far more interesting than his exploration of modern history.

I do think that books about men are important to feminism and gender equality as a whole, but I would’ve preferred something that was better structured. Really, it was hard to get past that.

Discussion

In a world that is largely patriarchal, men get overlooked in writing about specific history. All history books tend to focus on the conquests of different men, women being tacked on as a side topic to explore for perhaps a paragraph unless a woman was linked to a famous man. However, books don’t typically feature cultural conceptions of the penis. Many books have been written about vaginas, from histories to politics to cultural studies. Penises have contributed much the world, good and bad, and usually when they’re attached to a specific person. However, is this the best book to tackle such an expansive topic? No. A deep lack of editing, focus, and credibility mars the book from our perspective, no matter how much of an important topic penises are to feminism and gender equality.

Discussion Questions: 

  • How is the penis viewed in the modern day, and how does this change depending on what race/ethnicity you are?
  • Are we more divided as a gender now or were we more divided before?
  • Will we ever get to a point where gender and genitalia do not define us?

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

The Left Hand of Darkness coverCaidyn- 4.5/5

Now, I’m not a huge sci-fi person. Let me explain, though. I really like sci-fi when it’s done well. However, most books I’ve read that are sci-fi aren’t what I want. A lot of them are pretty misogynistic and, well, that’s not my thing. Either the books are misogynistic themselves or the authors are, and I am the type of person who doesn’t want to support the work of people who are like that.

But, this one was very good. It’s a really good look at a planet and the political tensions in it. That’s what most of the book is comprised of. Just explaining political tensions that then lead us down the rabbit hole to something bigger. Gender. A huge discussion on gender and gender roles. And it starts off hinting at it, then it continues on, going further and further in until the end when you’re left with a profound statement. Does gender truly matter? It impacts everything that we do and are allowed to do in our culture, but does it matter?

That was a huge topic back in the 1960s when this was written. Today it’s still a big topic as more people come out under the transgender umbrella. Transsexual (which is a dying term that some transpeople find offensive — I obviously don’t), non-binary, demigender, genderfluid, gender variant/nonconformity, Two Spirits, the Third Gender, etc, etc etc. There are so many that I can’t keep track of them. And, obviously, it’s a huge talking point in politics. Look at North Carolina’s bathroom bill. (And the one being proposed in Texas. And various other states, including Kansas.) The debate still rages even between the traditional binary of men and women, leaving out the trans part of it.

And this book is still relevant for all of it. I highly recommend it and I’m definitely going to have to read it again.

Chantel – 4.5/5

I gave this book a rating of 4.5 stars because it has a slow start with a lot of political intrigue because of this it took me some time to get into the book. Once I did, I was amazed. There were also POV shifts that weren’t obvious right away and was quite jarring. However, I’d highly recommend as an important piece of science fiction literature written by an incredible female author and as a look at gender from a 1960’s point of view.

My first exposure to Ursula K. Le Guin was a story called, “The Ones Who Walked Away From Omelas”. I highly recommend it. It was an amazing story about a utopia that has a moral dilemma, and that’s all I’ll say because I encourage everyone to go read it. It was an incredible story and sticks with me to this day. From then on, I wanted to read more by her and when I heard what The Left Hand of Darkness was about I was immediately interested. A planet where there are no assigned genders and no gender roles? Of course, I’m intrigued.

As I was reading the book, I found myself getting annoyed with the protagonist and his views on the people of Winter. As a progressive Millenial living in 2017, I thought the idea of a genderless planet was incredible and would be a wonderful place to live. It’s so easy to think of how people thought then and criticize, but I constantly had to remind myself of when the book was published and how people thought back during that time. Le Guin is simply reflecting the thoughts of her time and trying to open people’s minds. I felt that Genly’s journey through the book was excellent character development and it didn’t feel unnatural or forced.

For me, this book picked up about halfway through. There’s essentially two parts to this book and once that second part hit, I was sucked in completely. From that moment on until the end of the book was a beautiful story. The writing and world building that Le Guin provides us with is remarkable. She did in this novel what I felt she accomplished, on a smaller scale, in a short story and I know this book is very popular and well respected in the science fiction world and it’s deserved.

Discussion

While we both agreed on the merit of the book, we looked at it from different perspectives. Chantel wasn’t a fan of the political aspects of it whereas Caidyn was. Caidyn looked at it from the point of view of a transman while Chantel saw it from the perspective of a liberal, progressive, cis-woman. This book is open to many perspectives beyond those two. During the time period Le Guin wrote this, sci-fi was largely dominated by male writers and readers. Having a book that asserted a genderless world and had a main character imposing his gender pronouns on characters reflected the way most readers came from, taking not only Genly through dynamic character growth but also the reader. The reader would have to be engaged in the book and perhaps be repulsed by these “men” who are feminine. In a world that grows more and more inclusive (we hope) of different gender identities and expressions, Le Guin’s book offers a glimpse into the past and a reflection on how many people feel today as gender becomes more and more muddled in the eyes of the public.

Discussion Questions:

  • How is this book is still relevant?
  • Did Genly’s POV contribute to the book in any way other than what we named?
  • What themes would be similar or different if the book was published in 2017?