21 October 2009

Happy Birthday, Ursula LeGuin!

Today is LeGuin's 80th birthday, and also the 40th anniversary of the publication of Hugo-winner The Left Hand of Darkness.

LeGuin is one of my favorite writers. She's written fantasy, science fiction, and YA novels and short stories. You can read her extensive bibliography here, or the short version. (I need to get the other 2 books in the Annals of the Western Shore...)

I first read The Left Hand of Darkness in 1986 or 87, when I was in fifth grade. I'd just read Madeleine L'Engle's Wrinkle in Time books, borrowed from my elementary school library, and LeGuin was shelved right next to her, so... I can't remember if I read the Earthsea books first, or if they were checked out at the time. I'm fairly sure most of the book went straight over my head, but I loved it. I found a copy at the used book store 7 or 8 years ago and reread it then. I've been working to complete my collection over the years, slowly. It's hard to get out of print books, you know.

The Left Hand of Darkness was a groundbreaking work in 1969. It's part of the Hainish cycle, a loose series of stories set in a future of space exploration and contact. On a planet called Winter, an explorer cum ambassador for the Ekumen (the league of worlds) befriends a Gethenian and goes on a walk with them. Gethenians are androgynous, almost a-gendered, except for a period called kemmer, during which they take on one set of sexual characteristics. It's not always straightforward which set they get, and it's not even always the same set! There's a story of political intrigue and betrayal, of course, though that seems like a side concern.

LeGuin's strongest suit, which is no doubt related to being the daughter of a very famous anthropologist, is creating worlds you can believe in, populated with people you can believe in. Much of the Hainish cycle reads like a vehicle for cultural anthropology. The Ekumen goes around exploring new worlds and observing the native inhabitants (without interference.) They may interact, but there are Rules about influencing their societies.

Her prose is sparse, almost Spartan, but still incredibly detailed. It's as far from the lyrical purpleness and skirting the point favored by some modern SF/F writers as possible, yet her imagery is at least as evocative as theirs. Moreso, perhaps, because it's not obfuscated under deliberately clever word choices.

If you've never read anything she's written, you're missing out.

Happy birthday, UKL. May there be many more.

13 October 2009

Book review: The Graveyard Book

Since this book was sitting on my shelf for a year, and I'd read a bunch of space opera, I thought I'd go for something different: a children's ghost story. Considering the book just celebrated a year on the NYT bestseller list, it was about time...

Neil Gaiman writes books about myths: American Gods, Anansi Boys, Stardust. His YA and children's books also have a touch of the mythic.

The Graveyard Book is about a boy named Nobody Owens, who grows up in a graveyard and is raised by ghosts. It's a retelling of The Jungle Book. In the opening chapter (and I don't consider this a spoiler), Bod's parents and older sister are murdered by the man Jack, but year-old Bod escapes, because he's a crawler, and he crawls out to the graveyard next door, where a pair of ghosts adopt him and raise him as their own. The whole graveyard chips in, actually.

Always in the background, until a turning point halfway through, is the mystery of Bod's family's murder and the man Jack. I don't want to go into detail, because Neil's revelations are wonderful and timed perfectly.

It's a story of growing up and learning who you are, and learning how to fit into your world, which is one of the main themes of children's and YA lit. It's got ghosts and werewolves and vampires and ghouls and bullies at school and a fleeting hint of romance. (It's not a kissing book, though. No worries.)

And a nice disclaimer for the FTC: I bought this book with my own money. I have no ties to Neil Gaiman, as much as I wish I did, because he's really adorable and has the dearest accent. I met him once at a signing and got him to sign a couple books (which I'd also paid for myself), and he was very nice and British, despite having 700 people to sign books for, just that night.

04 October 2009

World Beer Festival 2009, Durham NC

Yesterday was the WBF in Durham. I've gone the last three years and enjoyed it, and I plan to continue attending in the future. (I'll get back to posting about writing or books or whatever sometime soon. Promise?)

As is traditional, I'm compiling a list of the beers I tried and what I thought of them, if I remember. The problem with beer sampling is that it's still kinda alcoholic. ;) This year, the program book helpfully included an alphabetical list of breweries and had listed the beers the brewers brought, with little boxes where you could mark down what you thought of them (1-5).

* denotes breweries in the Southeast; ** denotes breweries within NC

*Abita: Abbey Ale. I marked this one a 4, which means I liked it. It was like a dubbel or tripel, kind of heavy but still smooth and drinkable. I asked the guy working at the booth about the Satsuma Wit, and he said they're adding it to their permanent lineup as a summer seasonal, because it went over very well. This pleases me. (The Satsuma Wit is a Belgian white with satsuma orange added in the process. It's delightful and refreshing; perfect for a July afternoon.)

**Asheville Brewing: Ninja Porter. I tried this one toward the end of the evening, and I didn't like it. I marked down '1' in the box, but I can't recall why I didn't like it.

*Atlanta Brewing: Double chocolate oatmeal porter. 4. I have a poor track record with oatmeal porters; I don't know what it is about them. But this one, damn. It was sweet but not cloying, and had enough chocolate to balance out whatever it is I don't like about oatmeal porters.

Atwater Block Brewery: Vanilla java porter. 5. Sweet jumping Jesus on a pogo stick, this was divine. The vanilla made it, I think.

Belgoo Beer: Magus. 5. This is a white beer, and I really liked it.

**Big Boss: Harvest Time pumpkin ale: 4; Monkey Business Belgian farmhouse ale: 5. This was toward the end of the evening, so my tasting was a bit ... subdued? The pumpkin was good, and I could taste the spices. Ben said he liked it better than the Shipyard, so I may have to track some down before Halloween. The Monkey Business was really good - I think it reminded me of a golden ale, but I'm not sure on that, unfortunately.

Bosteels Brewery: Triple Karmiliet. 5. I believe this was a tripel. It was also toward the end, so my memory is a bit fuzzy. It was a nice clear golden color, though.

Sam Adams: Imperial Stout. 5. Another entry in the Imperial line, this is bold and strong, as you'd expect from an imperial stout. Unlike others I've tried, this one doesn't have the alcohol aftertaste, so if you prefer your imperial stouts smooth, go for this one. (They also had the imperial white, which I enjoy. It's not what you'd expect from a white - it's almost thick, and very strongly flavored.)

*Charleston Brewing: Half Moon Hefeweizen. 4. I could have given this a 5, I think. It was a very nice, very refreshing hefeweizen, though iirc it was filtered.

Deschutes Brewery: Black Butte Porter. 2. There's something about porters that makes me either love them or hate them, and I wish I knew what it was.

**Duck-Rabbit Craft Brewery: Baltic porter. 4. This was a porter that reminded me of a Belgian tripel, or possibly the New Holland Dragon's Milk. It was strange, but it worked.

**Foothills Brewing: stout. 2. I think this had a sour-hoppy taste to it that made me dislike it.

Fordham Brewing: Oak barrel stout. 4. I don't remember this one much, though it was relatively early on. But I noted that I liked it.

Gordon Biersch: Hefeweizen. 4+. The sign on this one said the hefeweizen had notes of bubblegum and banana, so I had to try it. It definitely tasted like bananas. Ben said he could taste the bubblegum. If you're into that sort of thing, it's pretty awesome.

Great Lakes Brewing: Christmas Ale. 3. I think this was fairly inoffensive, but I wasn't moved to enjoy it.

Kona Brewery: Pipeline porter. 3. Again with the porter problem.

Lao Brewery: Laotian beer. Didn't like it at all.

Leinenkugel's: Honey Weiss: 4; Berry Weiss: 4. Both delightful, refreshing wheat beers. The berry is raspberry, and it's a lot more fruity than, for example, Abita's Purple Haze.

**Liberty Steakhouse & Brewery: Blackberry wheat. 3. Generally inoffensive, but not particularly remarkable.

**Lone Rider: Shotgun Betty. 5. This is a hefeweizen, and I really enjoyed it. It was almost crossed with a white beer, iirc.

Malheur: Malheur 12. 4. This is a quadrupel, which I'm generally inclined to appreciate.

*Moon River Brewing: Wild Wacky Wit. 5. I think this one reminded me a lot of Hoegaarden, which is never a bad thing.

**Mother Earth Brewing: Weeping Willow Wit. 3-. I was kind of surprised to find a pagan-themed organic brewery out of Kinston, NC, but I didn't like their beer. I want to like organic beer, but there's just something off about them.

**Natty Greene's: Wildflower witbier. 4.

North Coast Brewing: Pranqster. 4. Belgian style golden ale.

*RJ Rockers: Son of a Peach wheat beer. 5. Holy crap, this was peachy and wheaty and I could probably drink it all day.

Singha: Did not like.

Tibet Lhasa Brewery: Also did not like.

**Top of the Hill: Old Well White. 3. Completely inoffensive, but not remarkable. I'd probably order it next time I go there for dinner, if they have it.

**Triangle Brewery: Belgian-style abbey dubbel. 4. I also wanted to try the Belgian golden and the Belgian white, but I didn't.

I wanted to try *Thomas Creek's Stillwater vanilla cream ale, but they were out.