Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Other Wind (2003)

I don't recall if I read The Other Wind (2003) by Ursula LeGuin before, so most likely, I likely listened to it as an audiobook. The book tells the story of a mending sorcerer who talks to many people in Earthsea, listening to those many stories, before finally wrapping up with something that approximates an ending.

The first quarter of the book catches us up on the events of previous Earthsea novels, making sure that all the highlights have been highlighted. We then travel onward, where we catch up with a few more characters, more events recapped, and more details filled in. Finally, for the last quarter of the book, everyone goes on a boat ride to Roke, then go camping, thus saving the world.

Ostensibly, the plot involves the fact that the Dry Lands are an artificial construct, created by wizards, to create some sort of immortality among themselves, but over the centuries that's pretty much been forgotten. At this point, the dead have gotten pretty sick of being dead and just want to be finally and completely dead, not just mostly dead. So, the dead reach out to a sorcerer particularly adept at repairing, for they want him to tear down the wall, which doesn't need repairing at all, and helps you to understand why that poor sorcerer was so confused. Who hires a mender to tear things down?

We have some symbolic plots closed up. When the Ring of Elfarran was rejoined, it symbolized rejoining in Earthsea as well, and so our good Earthsea king gets a fierce Earthsea Karg princess, and so the realms are joined and Earthsea itself made whole. This plot I actually approve of. Not only does it make thematic sense, it gives our dear Tenar something to do and lets her have her identity as a Karg back again. We have the mutterings of "change" finally brought forth and we get to see change, although we really don't know what that change means, so this is change with sparklers and neon signs. The presentation is pretty but we still don't know what's actually changed other than the dry lands, which only wizards could visit, is gone. I don't see most people noticing that change.

Other plots are wrapped up as well. Ged never gets his powers back. Tehanu flies away to the other wind, finally a dragon. The King finds his Queen. And everyone who's had a stick up their ass takes it out and gets to be a decent human being for once. The only thing missing from this book in the end was a rousing Kubaya around the campfire while a joint got passed around.

I'll happily recommend this book to any fan of Earthsea, but if you haven't read anything else in the series, most of the book will be lost to you. 

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Not So Delicate Literary Culture

A few days back, I don't remember where, I saw someone refer to "protecting the delicate literary culture."

Let that sink in. Literary culture is delicate. Can you believe that?

No, my friends, literary culture is most definitely not delicate, nor has it ever been. Some awkward ignoramus is not going to stumble into it, knock it down, and cause irreparable damage. Quite the opposite, some ignoramus is going to want his want his monitor to be two inches higher, and so literary culture will lift our modern computer culture. That shows that literary culture is rather solid and highly resilient. What other art can double as a riser?

In seriousness, I still don't understand how literary culture is delicate and must be protected. Most literary writers do not succeed in publishing as they can't get contracts. That means that the system is not protecting them, yet they still produce good literary works. Otherwise, where would the publishers find new writers?

The people who make a space for literary culture are not the publishers but the readers. They are the one who show up to book signings, reading, and other literary events. Without the reader, there is no literary culture. Without the reader, the whole system implodes. The publishing houses go under. One is only left with writers who write and make no money with no hope of publication, which is astonishingly like today's system, only more so.

And honestly, do you think that you'll get readers by calling their pastime "delicate." "Oh, our literary form is on it's deathbed. Come, join our fun. You'll get cancer, too." That's no good way to sell books.

I'm going to be on the one who stands up for honesty here. Literary culture is not delicate. Quite the opposite, literary culture is robust, optimistic, resilient, ingenious, and filled with humor, horror, sexiness, lust, and all those fantastic things that make us human. Literary culture is humanity. It's all the best and worst parts of life smashed down into an affordable package that you can take home with you. Do you want a good deal? THAT's a good deal.

Literary culture is as delicate as the basic human condition, which is to say, literary culture is not delicate at all.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Tehanu (1990)

Tehanu (1990) by Ursula LeGuiin comes at you like an erector set. There are many pieces, pictorial directions, and a screwdriver. It's up to you to figure out what the pictorial directions actually mean and hope that you can actually build that complicated thing, only to find out that you've made a mistake, or there's a screw missing, or you needs to substitute parts. Why doesn't it all just fit together.

Yeah. That's Tehanu. Why doesn't it all just fit together?

If this book was about Jane and Tom, and that burned girl Mimi, all in the land of Trolls, I would have far fewer problems with this book. It would surely but unsteadily entertain me from one end of the novel to the other. I'd have my qualm about it, but they wouldn't be big qualms. However, that's not the book that we get. We get an Earthsea novel, the fourth in the series, and with that comes titans who just don't have anywhere to sit down. No matter how you arrange it, there's a colossus in the garden and he'd like something to drink.

Our characters purport to be The Nameless One/Arha/Tenar/Goha and Sparrowhawk/Ged, yet they never feel like those characters. Case in point, Goha is trapped in her house, in the dark, and she forgets how the locks go. Oh, how that scene should never be, for it was Goha who grew up learning the dark, the ways in the dark, and the habits of the dark. She should know every nook and cranny of her house in the dark, the way that the locks go in the dark, and the number of steps in the dark, for that knowledge, that learning once and never forgetting, is so central to Arha from The Tombs of Atuan.

How could Ursula have made such a basic mistake? How could she have lost the central core of that character? I readily accept that Arha could have lost many skills and habits on leaving her native lands, learning how to live in many new ways, but nothing translated from that old character, not even her vicious push-back or her means of solace. We see bits of the character, sprinkled on like old pepper, without taste and meaningless.

Goha learned her new language as a young woman. Why does she speak flawlessly? Would not some language difficulty suit her? It would certainly help distinguish her from everyone else and constantly remind the reader that she is not from here and is different.

There was a romance, too, but that fell like an egg onto the pantry floor. It splatted, and that's about all it felt like.

In praise, this novel not only discards some fantasy conventions, it positively smashes them to the ground then dances on the shards with steel boots. We have a hero with no real power. We have a child who is never miraculously healed. We have problems raised that are not solved. We have no real villain other than the issues of our main characters. (Yes, there is that one guy, but really, he doesnt' matter. You could end the book without him and nobody would notice.)

What this book wrestles with, and what I understand all too well, is that ambitious stretch to write a fantasy novel without the fantasy tropes. I've done this myself, and wrote a series of novels from the view of a cook, meeting all those people that you never stop to speak to. Learning how to write in that idiom proved very difficult, requiring significantly different approaches than you might see in a more normal fantasy novel. Her decisions proved challenging to her, as they should have.

There is some retconning that happens in the books, but it's also not retconning. From the very beginning, Ursula's Earthsa has shown us what wizards know and what they don't know. She never leads to reader to believe that Wizards know all things magical. In this, she chooses to wrestle with her own words, her own millstones about her literary and feminist neck, which talks about women's magic as weak and women's magic as evil. To be honest, I was rooting for her in this book. I wanted her to succeed wildly, but by the end, found that she had not. She had not shown me that a woman's magic was either effective or good. For that, I mourn.

Maybe in the end, Goha merely traded one labyrinth for another, but for this one she is fully lost, with no words to recite or turns to count, unable to exit it and unable to stop wandering. In the end, what she find is someone to wander that labyrinth with her, because like all realistic stories, there are no firm beginning, and no firm ends, and no real plot. But there are people doing what people do. Better to be a people, I think.

In summary, Tehanu is a book that leads us down many paths, losing its way and refinding itself, until we stumbles out the other side of the forest, to find ourselves no more found than before.

* Disclaimer: Even after all those words, I still don't understand what I'm talking about here.


Next on my list of top fantasy novels from the 1970s are the first three Earthsea novels by LeGuin, A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, and The Farthest Shore.

I must confess that when I first read the Tombs of Atuan in the middle school, I pronounced the word "A-too-awn", not "A-twan."

This trilogy came to me as a Christmas present somewhere around the 7th or 8th grade. I do not know why my parents chose this trilogy, other than some bookseller recommended it, but come my way it did. It was also packaged with "The Wind's Twelve Quarters" which I have no reread since those days. I've taken part of the summer to reread the trilogy and beyond, but today I will limit myself to the trilogy.

I found "A Wizard of Earthsea" as charming as the first time that I read it. This time, I saw and recognized all the symbolism for what it was, finding it all rather clever. LeGuin had a way of gliding above the details, making them irrelevant, and we chased down this story of Ged and his shadow. Her information delivery in this novel is flawless, and an entire world comes into being in 60k words. It's not a thick book at all. All in all, very mythic.

I found "The Tombs of Atuan" difficult in the same ways that I found it difficult in the 70s. All the charm of a Wizard was gone, replaced by a sucking cold and dark and as as unfeeling as the Old Powers in their tombs. The first time, I liked no one in this book except the wizard that I was expecting but not getting, or getting enough of. This books twisted about my mind as much as the Labyrinth twisted about our heroes. This time around, I still felt that sucking cold, and looking at The Nameless One, found her empty, but my mind followed the loops around. What character Arha had simply did not touch me. All in all, I found the story a little mythic but mostly impersonal.

Style changed again for the final book, "The Farthest Shore."  Almost all sense of the mythic is gone. Elements of the original charm are there, but they are only elements. At times, the story is as far out to sea as the characters, never quite knowing where it's going or why. I simply didn't fathom this story in the 70's, and today, still find it somewhat distant. The hero succeeds, but I find no elation. There is a king and nobody cares. As an adult, the book makes far more sense, yet I am not left thinking about the questions that the book raises. Somehow they don't interest me.

As for Tehanu and The Farthest Shore, I will blog those separately. I'm still reading.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Silmarilion (Top Fantasy Novels of the 1970s)

Working down the list of the best fantasy novels of the 1970s, I begin, or rather don't begin, with the Silmarilion.

So, how exactly does that work?

Despite being published in the 1970's, the Silmarilion was not written in the 70's. It is the product of another time that happened to be published at a later date. So in terms of getting me in touch with that 70's vibe, reading the Silmarilion would be rather a failure. True Tolkienism isn't like anything else, even among its derivatives. It's sort of a well-loved literary dead-end. It worked out well for him. Those who followed, imitating aspects of this writing style or subject matter, veered off into their own direction called Tolkienesque, (Unless it's called something different now, because I'm slow that way.) That veering is quite acceptable for my reading list as those books were written in the 70s.

A somewhat confessional reason that I am skipping this book is that I just can't bring myself to read the Silmarilion again.

Literarily, I do not think that Tolkien is a good match for my own prose style, so I do not want to be influenced by him. More than any other work, the Silmarilion does not represent a novel in any modern sense. It is an amalgam of world building that occurred over a series of years. To imitate its habits would be to imitate the wrong things. Better, I think, to nod respectfully at this book and move on.

Next on the list is Ursula LeGuin with her Earthsea novels.