Friday, January 9, 2009

Reading, Young and Old


I was just reading Ursula Le Guin's marvelousThe Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination this morning in an effort at delaying the approaching end-writing of one of my two unfinished novels (there are two finished ones, as well - anyone know a nice agent?). It's quite amazing what tactics one will employ not to do the thing one loves most; however, reading this book is much nicer than my other forms of procrastination (laundry, cleaning the chicken coop, etc). Ms. Le Guin is such a sage, intelligent, clear writer, she makes me happy.

The essay "Reading Young, Reading Old" is all about how we read at different ages, and how our perceptions change of old favorites over the years. It was odd that I opened the book here, because I've been thinking about doing a post on books that have made an indelible impression on my psyche; so now, as another form of procrastination, perhaps I can make a brief list and hope that others can enjoy these, too.


I think the single book I come back to again and again, in terms of consistently extraordinary ideas, was The Wind's Twelve Quarters (and a few stories from The Compass Rose, which I tend to conflate with the former). It is difficult to explain why the ideas in these books come back to me again and again, throughout my life, but I think it has to do with the way they go places - both in terms of interpersonal examination and intellectual exploration - that I wouldn't have ever gone otherwise. But perhaps it has more to do with the impressionable age at which I read them.

Interestingly, one of the things I most admire about Ursula Le Guin is the really rigorous social critique she brings to her books and stories. Not in a preachy way, mind, but in a way that makes you see what's possible; she has in fact said that one of the virtues of science fiction is its ability to make metaphors literal. This is a woman whose father was Alfred L. Kroeber, a man who had a huge impact on the development of social anthropology - and H. J. Muller, who won the 1946 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, was her cousin. Her mother was a noted biographer. In other words, she comes from smart people.


The thing about Leguin is that as she has grown older, she looks backward with increasing wisdom at the various stages of life and development. As a result, though her later works don't seem to get the same recognition as the earlier ones, I actually find many of them more wonderful, more gemlike; smaller but truer. There is a period, of which Four Ways to Forgiveness is a standard-bearer and probably my favorite, where her writing managed to achieve an awareness together with a beauty and simplicity which I feel is unparalleled. She has a real knack for showing us the visceral realities of hardship and oppression which is impossibly empathetic. As a writer, I find it nearly miraculous that she can get inside the heads of people who have, for example, been through wars similar to that in Kosovo, and write about it, without getting maudlin or harsh. ,,,And all in a science fiction environment, no less.

The Birthday of the World is an extraordinary short-story collection from this period, and Tales from Earthsea, Unlocking the Air (whose title story manages to be small but stunning) and A Fisherman of the Inland Sea, are all worthwhile. Believe me, they will leave you thinking.


An older favorite of mine is Winter's Tale, by Mark Helprin, which manages to be historically accurate while creating a completely alternate history of Manhattan. The layers of image and storytelling in this book have stayed with me year after year, and I find myself going back to it just to remember things. My favorite notion is that of the Cloud Wall, which hovers over the water and swallows things. One of the characters, in order to go home to see her parents, must skate up the river through the cloud-wall to get there; but that is the mystery and magic of where she was raised - one can't reach it by normal means. Really, an excellent, stick-in-your-brain read, and a celebration of all the really magical bits of old Manhattan, to boot.


John Crowley's Little, Big has shaped a lot of how I think about universes within universes, and the way Faery should interact with our world. It manages to do some of what the things that Orson Scott Card's Seventh Son does, in terms of making magic a deeply folkloric and American thing, but it does it in a broader, more adult, more understated way. It's the story of a family's growth and change, their lives and loves; but - and it's difficult to describe how this works - they are no ordinary family. Their close ties to Faery are never explicitly explained, yet permeate all their interactions with the world, and make their lives, in some real way, much more difficult and complex. The scene where the changeling baby begins to fall apart is one which will haunt me for the rest of my days.


Diana Wynne Jones' The Dalemark Quartet are, I think, the widest of her books. I'm a great fan of Ms. Jones, but most of her books are very domestic, taking place in and around one building or sometimes one neighborhood; it's a hallmark of hers, to bring the magic into the domestic world. These books are much more sweeping - and yet they manage to be beautiful and odd at the same time. I really love her ability to make us feel what it's like to be wrapped up in a situation, the way we get to really feel what it's like to be in the thick of magic, either from one's self or from somewhere else. She has a way of making it terribly intimate. These four books take that intimacy into a broader context, and are wonderful for that. Of course, it could be that they were the first of her books I ever read...

Then there are some books I think people should read just because there is nothing else like them. Really. And, of course, because they're great. Here's a list:


Edward Gorey's Amphigorey is... well, if you haven't read any Gorey, and you like this blog, you really need to get this book. It's what being weird is all about - in a good way. And if you have any pretensions of wanting to be a writer, you must read "The Unstrung Harp," a story in Amphigorey which describes the writing process of novelist Clavius Frederick Earbrass: "He must be mad to go on enduring the unexquisite agony of writing when it all turns out drivel."

Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife is a relatively recent book, and absolutely beautiful in its conception and execution. I've known grown men to cry at the end of this book. Perhaps that's not a recommendation, but imagine how harrowing your life would be if you had a disorder that meant you were unexpectedly yanked from the present time into some other time during your lifespan, regardless of your present situation? The dangers, and an elegant time-crossed love story, are nicely thought out here.


The Years of Rice and Salt, by Kim Stanley Robinson, is described thus: "...a thoughtful and powerful examination of cultures and the people who shape them. How might human history be different if 14th-century Europe was utterly wiped out by plague, and Islamic and Buddhist societies emerged as the world's dominant religious and political forces? The Years of Rice and Salt considers this question through the stories of individuals who experience and influence various crucial periods in the seven centuries that follow." Warning: this book contains extensive reincarnation - the characters get to live through the whole seven centuries, over and over. Really, a fascinating, well-researched and well-thought out read - and a great story, to boot.


Russell Hoban is a wildly varied and intriguing author. Not only did he do the plain-and-simple Frances books, which many children know and love, but he did the incredibly creative Captain Najork picture books, of which there are sadly only two. In A Near Thing for Captain Najork, for example (the second of the two books), one character invents a "two seater, jam powered frog" which he uses as a conveyance. The frog hops over walls and rivers and people, and is pursued by a vengeful-but-upright Captain Najork:

"'Follow that frog!' he shouted to his hired sportsmen as he leapt into his pedal-powered snake, and away they undulated. Captain Najork had not forgotten the time when Tom had beaten him and his hired sportsmen at womble, muck, and sneedball. 'I'd like to try some new games on him,' said the Captain. 'I'd like to see how good he is at thud, crunch, and Tom-on-the-bottom.'"

Captain Najork remembers how, in How Tom Beat Captain Najork and His Hired Sportsmen, Tom's fooling-around ways helped him win at some rather odd games. In the end, as the champion, Tom trades in his iron-hatted Aunt Fidget Wonkham-Strong for a new aunt, one who likes to sit in trees with a glass of wine: Aunt Bundlejoy Cosysweet.


Riddley Walker, also written by Hoban, is a post-apocalyptic (?) novel about life among the villages in England when it's no longer England, but a rural place with its own rituals and religion. Here is what one reviewer says:

"Here's the first sentence of this extraordinary novel: 'On my naming day when I come 12 I gone front spear and kilt a wyld boar he parbly ben the las wyld pig on the Bundel Downs any how there hadn't ben none for a long time befor him nor I aint looking to see none agen.' This is Riddley-speak and it's a sort of post-apocalyptic patois spoken by Riddley and the various peoples who live in a desolate Kent thousands of years after a nuclear holocaust. The tribes are living at an Iron Age level of technology and what they are allowed to think and do is shaped in part by the legend of St Eustace and controlled by leaders who use itinerant puppeteers to communicate their policies."

The language is difficult at first, but incredibly poetic in the end, ragged and beautiful. And the story is astonishing in its virtuosity.

On a different and more normal note, Harnessing Peacocks is where I first discovered Mary Wesley, who has her finger on the pulse of wartime (and post-wartime) characters in Britain. She also wrote The Chamomile Lawn, which is probably more well-known, but I like the protagonist of Harnessing Peacocks, which takes place in the eighties, perhaps. The premise of the story is very odd, that of a woman who works part-time as a special sort of cook and part-time as a prostitute - but a prostitute unlike any other - to support her son.

In a similar real-world vein, The Wasp Factory, by Iain Banks, is quite boggling, as well. Really a weirdie of a book. I liked it more as a young person than I do now, but I feel I really should mention it if I am writing of books that are unlike any other. It's a fast and interesting read.

Well. That was not a brief list. Now, I suppose, I shall have to actually get to work... wait, I'm hungry.

12 comments:

Clare K. R. Miller said...

What a wonderful post!

The funny thing is, as I was reading the first few sections, especially the Winter's Tale section, I kept thinking of Little, Big (which is one of my Top Five Favorite Books Ever). And then it was the next on your list! I'm delighted.

I've only read a couple of the other books here, and they all sound fascinating, so I'll have to put them on my Amazon wishlist (which is mostly just a listing of books so I can remember what I want to read). As if I needed more books to covet...

bioephemera said...

Thank you for the shout-out to Winter's Tale - I have yet to meet anyone who has ever read it, and it's a book I can never seem to convince anyone to try! However, I read the first half of Little, Big and was completely unable to get into it - or even finish it. Which is so weird, since I've heard nothing but glowing things about it. I may have to try it again in the future and see if I was just in a bad space the first go-round. . .

Don said...

Great post...looks like I have some reading to do. Thanks for some (bookshop) guidance.

Tim Byrd said...

This is a marvelous list, and I'm pleased to see Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin on it. It's probably one of the two or three books I love the most, such a rich, moving, imaginative, witty, incredible book.

Best,

Tim Byrd
www.DocWilde.com, home of the Frogs of Doom

Ana said...

I just discovered your blog and I'm in raptures! I might have to read my way backwards so pardon me if I leave random comments all over.

Barry Pike said...

These are excellent recommendations and I've only read a couple of them.

This list suggests to me that you might enjoy Piers Anthony's "Sos The Rope," a spare and fascinating novella that I have read time and again. It is the first and best of a trilogy that he wrote back in 1968.

Young Geoffrion said...

I have followed your blog for ages, and am always delighted to find concurrences and overlapses in our choice of reading. Ursula K LeGuin and Mark Helprin have been favorites always, and I shall seek out the others you mention. As an interesting writer is by definition a pond-skipper, a book-dipper, perhaps a tippler and ever an eccentric, it's no surprise to find procrastination only a few letters away from (literary) procreation. Writing seems to me a curious form of intense idleness.

The Lord Baron Joseph C.R. Vourteque IV said...

I've never read Mark Helprin's "Winters Tale", but some of my favorite picture novella's are his "A City in Winter" and "The Veils of Snow". They are short, easy reads with absolutely beautiful pictures and the description of a Winters Tale reminds me a lot of the other two. I suggest checking them out for certain, though they are difficult to find these days.

ArtSparker said...

The Ursula LeGuin story "The Ones who walk away from Omelas" engraved itself permanently on my brain when I read it, I think Little,Big and Winter's Tale both, in a sense, take off from and imagined New York City. I love Crowley's early books, Beasts and The Deep, as well. Ridley Walker's language is similar to that of Far Tortugas in making the familiar strange. You might want to try Scarlett Thomas' "The End of Mr. Y".

Matt B said...

Hmm, what you write about "Riddley Walker" rather reminds me of the post-acpocalyptic story line in David Mitchell's "Cloud Atlas". wonder whether that's where the author got his inspiration...

Heather McDougal said...

I doubt it - Wikipedia says :Hoban began writing the novel in 1974, inspired by the medieval wall painting of the legend of Saint Eustace at Canterbury Cathedral." It's pretty old, as these things go. It won a bunch of awards and was hailed for being somewhat groundbreaking.

Perhaps it's the other way around...!

I do have to say, though, Cloud Atlas sounds really interesting.

Matt B said...

Yeah, after I posted the comment I realized that the book was actually older than Cloud Atlas. Let's just pretend I'd written "I wonder whether that's where Mitchell got his inspiration..." :)

In any case, do read Cloud Atlas and Mitchell's other books (Ghostwrittem, number9dream and Black Swan Green). They're rather good. (And they're all interconnected!)

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