Review – A Wizard of Earthsea

Cover of A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le GuinA Wizard of Earthsea, Ursula Le Guin

This month’s challenge in the Book Club on Habitica is reading (or rereading, in my case) Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea books. I scarcely need the encouragement to come back and read them again, so of course, I was in for this. It’s interesting reading this first one as an adult, having gone through my own coming of age and seeing Ged as young — just seventeen! It’s also interesting because I’ve read some of Le Guin’s critiques of her own work: the lack of place for women, “weak as women’s magic”, the typical male-centred quest story. It’s interesting to think about what could’ve been changed, and how that would have changed the canon of fantasy.

At first glance, the world of Earthsea is relatively typical fantasy. Yet there’s a spirituality here, too, and Le Guin’s interest in anthropology — her references to the customs like Sunreturn and the Long Dance — give it depth. It’s definitely its own thing, not derived solely from the fantasy tradition. And I’ve thought of Ged’s flight away from and then toward his shadow in very personal terms for a while now: to me it echoes my struggle with my anxiety, the way that I was weak and unable to fight it whenever I tried to pretend it away or avoid it. I had to face it and admit it was part of me, as Ged does with the shadow he’s unleashed. And like Ged, I didn’t stop being scared of it, but I gained strength from finding the way to fight it.

(Don’t get me started on the parallels in The Tombs of Atuan between the forces of the Nameless and depression, abuse. Now that I’ve thought about it, I think I could write a paper on it.)

“Only in silence the word, only in dark the light, only in dying life.”

Rating: 5/5

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Kids and Reading

The twitter conversation that caught my eye this weekend was started by Joanne Harris, talking about ways to get kids to read, and one of the important things she said is that you mustn’t denigrate a kid’s choices — even if they’re too young or too old for them, even if you don’t think it’s appropriate. You shouldn’t take the book away, even if an eleven year old is picking up Fifty Shades of Grey. And, well, I agree.

See, the thing is, if you forbid something, it becomes even more intriguing. And if they then seek it out for themselves, you’ve put a barrier between yourself and them — they can’t come to you with any questions or problems related to it, because you forbade them to do it and they’re worried about getting in trouble. So say your eleven year old does read E.L. James’ work; wouldn’t you rather they be able to ask questions about what they read, discuss problems with it with you, and not needlessly have them enshrining it as the epitome of adulthood and sexiness and romance?

I don’t recall my parents ever saying I shouldn’t read something. Sometimes my mum thought a book was a bit too ‘old’ for me and it’d spoil it if I tried to read it too young (The Lord of the Rings, for instance), but I only recall that happening once or twice. I had the run of her bookshelves from a very young age, and she got books out of the adult section of the library for me when our librarians wouldn’t even let me into that part of the library. I don’t recall her ever vetting ahead of time the books I was reading, and I don’t recall either of my parents ever talking trash about a book I was reading.

The first time I remember anything of the kind was a school librarian scolding me for reading Enid Blyton — and so I went home and asked my mother why I’d been scolded, and we talked about the racism and sexism of the books, and why people didn’t think much of them. And I’m pretty sure Mum told me that it was okay to read them as long as I understood that, and that of course the books were fun, they were meant to be, and there was nothing wrong with enjoying them. (I’m also fairly sure that was about the same time as I realised that there were much better books out there, as I was meeting wizards and robots; Tolkien, Le Guin and Asimov.)

Racking my brains, those are the only instances I can even think of where I was discouraged from reading anything as a kid. And, well, look at me now…

But seriously, if you want your kid to read, don’t try and drag the “wrong” books out of their hands. Just try and make sure that they know you’re open to them coming and asking questions, and perhaps you could even let them know if you think a book is better put off (it worked with me and The Lord of the Rings, at least). Even if they’re reading comics, books below their reading level, books you don’t like — it’s a door into the world of literature, and if you slam that door, it might put them off finding another. I was older than my peers when I finally started reading, and was still reading books with rhymes and pictures and lots of colour. A year after I finally unlocked that door and learnt to read, I’d leapt ahead of everyone else, while my peers were still bouncing off the school reading books.

(The first door I went through into literature was the door to Cat and Mouse’s house. After that, it was small and round and painted green, with certain marks scratched onto it with a staff: “Burglar wants a good job, plenty of Excitement and reasonable Reward.” I don’t know how many times I read and reread The Hobbit; again, my parents didn’t try to stop me. Well, there was a creaky floorboard and a loud bedside light designed to let them know if I was reading late into the night, but that was just to make sure I slept.)

Oh, and if your child gets most of their vocabulary from books, don’t mock them when they inevitably pronounce things wrong, please. My mother has had much jollity at my expense because I couldn’t pronounce even simple words, and it didn’t exactly encourage me to use my vocabulary and express myself. Puts a bit of a halt in the conversation when I have to stop and spell out a word because I don’t want to be laughed at if I say it wrong.

Should I ever have children, they’re getting their own library cards and as soon as they’re old enough to express any preference, I’m gonna let them choose whatever they like. Even if I’m sick of reading it. Even if it’s more pictures than words. Even if it’s too difficult for them and it’ll take a long time to get through it, or they’ll get bored of it. I’m going to let them choose, let them know they can talk to me about any and all of it, and make sure that they always, always have access to books — new and old. If they have favourites that they want to revisit, I’ll buy them so that enchantment is waiting ready to hand whenever they want it.

And if they don’t want books, well, I won’t despair. My sister didn’t read much from the age of ten to sixteen or so, and then I put a copy of Century Rain (Alistair Reynolds) in her hands, and she’s been devouring books ever since. Sometimes it just takes the right book at the right time.

Review – Buffalo Gals and Other Animal Presences

Cover of Buffalo Gals and Other Animal Presences by Ursula Le GuinBuffalo Gals and Other Animal Presences, Ursula Le Guin

I imagine most of these stories are collected somewhere else by now, but I was also interested in this book for the introductions to each story, which may not be collected elsewhere. It’s interesting to see what Le Guin feels the stories are about, what she thinks is important to know. For example, with ‘The Wife’s Tale’, she apparently warns audiences that it is not a werewolf story at the beginning. But I thought that mistake was kind of the point? That flip-flop moment of, oh. I got it wrong. I assumed.

I’d read most of the stories before, but the poems were new. Ursula Le Guin always has a beautiful clarity about her writing, capturing mannerisms and small moments, crystallising it… and sometimes her plots feel too clever for me, but most of these are pretty accessible, and the introductions helped.

Rating: 4/5

Review – Voices

Cover of Voices by Ursula Le GuinVoices, Ursula Le Guin

Voices is perhaps a more outwardly compelling book than the first, Gifts, partly because it features some of the same characters, and partly because it has more action. Memer is still pretty introspective, but the scale has changed: from a small mountain community, we’re now in a big city, and a city which is under the control of an occupying force.

Obviously the issues here are ones pretty close to my heart: reading and literacy, but also the way imperialism tries to break down local culture, failing to understand it or branding it primitive, even heretical, or just ignorant. With less heresy and supernatural stuff, and more “you stupid ignorant people”, that’s the relationship between Wales and England. (No, don’t chime in to tell me it’s not. I refer you to the Treachery of the Blue Books and the Welsh Not for just two examples.) Obviously the situations aren’t directly analogous, but it still resonated — particularly Memer’s initial inability to read, considering I still can’t read Welsh. I’m not sure if a single non-border English school offers Welsh classes on the curriculum, but mine definitely did not.

Since this is Ursula Le Guin we’re talking about, it’s beautifully and meditatively written. If you’re looking for big epic battles in which two armies clash, you’re in entirely the wrong place, but if you want a blueprint for how people can interact, even when their cultures clash, then Le Guin’s got your back.

Rating: 4/5

Top Ten Tuesday

This week’s theme is books you’d like to see as movies/tv shows. The proviso here is that I would want appropriate casting, e.g. not a white man for Ged or Patriot.

  1. A Wizard of Earthsea, Ursula Le Guin. Shush. There hasn’t been one. Doesn’t exist.
  2. Captain Marvel. Sooner than planned, please. And keep in the recent bit about her dating Rhodey!
  3. Young Avengers. You’ve got all the ingredients ready, Marvel. Dooo iiiiiittttt.
  4. Throne of Glass, Sarah J. Maas. It could be really epic, and it’d require a female lead who could do stunts and would need a good range of acting skills.
  5. A Natural History of Dragons, Mary Brennan. I’m not sure how well it’d translate to the big screen, but again, it’d require a female lead and it’d be a little bit like Walking With Dinosaurs, only dragons and fiction.
  6. The Winter King, Bernard Cornwell. Do Arthur right!
  7. Tigana, Guy Gavriel Kay. In the right hands, it would be beautiful.
  8. Sunshine, Robin McKinley. Female lead who is both a reluctant hero type and a baker. Interesting vampire lore, gorgeous imagery. It’d be amazing, right?
  9. Farthing, Jo Walton. Could serve as a timely warning to a country embracing conservatism right now, too.
  10. Bloodshot, Cherie Priest. Weird found-family dynamics, kickass female lead, ex-Navy SEAL drag queen? Okay, there’d be so many ways for them to mess it up, but we’re talking an ideal world here, and it would be so very right.

Gaah, gimme them. Nowww.

Review – Gifts

Cover of Gifts, by Ursula Le GuinGifts, Ursula Le Guin

Gifts is a quiet story, in the way that Ursula Le Guin can do really well: those moments of silence, introspection, contemplation. It isn’t my favourite of her books, but I love the things she explores here: the longing of parents to see their children succeed; love within families; grieving and loss; trying to choose the lesser evil… Orrec’s voluntary blindness and the way it affects the world around him, his fears and his wants, are beautiful; Canoc is a wonderful portrait of a difficult man: difficult to love, impossible to hate.

The whole feel of the book is really epitomised by Gry, for me; her quiet loyalty and determination, her love of Orrec which is undemanding and completely rock-solid. Their friendship and later the love between them is perfect.

I’m looking forward to rereading the rest of this trilogy; as I recall, the other two books feature more suspense and tension, and less of the solid quietness of this book. All of them have their own loveliness, though: it’s Le Guin, so how not?

Rating: 4/5

Top Ten Tuesday

This week’s Top Ten Tuesday is a freebie, so I’m going to borrow an idea that came to me via Guy Gavriel Kay:

“My youngest brother had a wonderful schtick from some time in high school, through to graduating medicine. He had a card in his wallet that read, ‘If I am found with amnesia, please give me the following books to read …’ And it listed half a dozen books where he longed to recapture that first glorious sense of needing to find out ‘what happens next’ … the feeling that keeps you up half the night. The feeling that comes before the plot’s been learned.”

So here’s my ten… Consider this an order if I am ever found with amnesia!

  1. The Dark is Rising, Susan Cooper. Well duh.
  2. The Earthsea Quartet, Ursula Le Guin. I’m curious as to how I’d feel about The Furthest Shore and Tehanu, reading them for the first time as an adult — originally I read them when I was quite young.
  3. The Fionavar Tapestry, Guy Gavriel Kay. I was torn between this and Tigana, but this was my first experience of Guy Gavriel Kay’s work, and I’d love to come to it fresh. Especially because it’s so influenced by prior fantasy.
  4. Whose Body, Dorothy L. Sayers. Well, all of the Peter Wimsey books really.
  5. Anything non-Arthurian by Mary Stewart. I’m not such a fan of her Arthurian books, but her other books are pure comfort to me. I might need that, if I’ve lost my memory!
  6. The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien. And Lord of the Rings, obviously.
  7. Among Others, Jo Walton. My first book by Walton was actually Farthing, but that’s less personal. It’d be interesting how much Among Others would resonate with me if I didn’t have the memories I do. (Mind you, neuroscience probably supports the idea that I’d still feel a sense of recognition, even without conscious memory.)
  8. I Capture the Castle, Dodie Smith. An absolute must — I can’t go without knowing the opening and closing lines.
  9. Something by Patricia McKillip. Just don’t start me on Winter Rose unless you’re willing to take notes about my experience, compare them to my old reviews, and publish a study on unconscious memories of reading in amnesiacs.
  10. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Obviously a whole course of Arthurian literature would be essential — you could start by giving me my own essays on Guinevere and Gawain — including Steinbeck’s unfinished work. But this would make a good starting point, and you could check if I retained my knowledge of Middle English too.

Now I almost want that to happen, so I can study the neuroscience of reading and memory from within! It’d also be interesting to see how I reacted to the Harry Potter books if I couldn’t remember a) reading them as a child and b) the hype surrounding them. And —

Yeah, I’ll stop. Looking forward to seeing what themes other people have gone with this week!