Bulgakov, Bowles, Gass (Books acquired 31 March 2017)

I like to shuffle around my favorite used bookstore on Fridays if I have a loose hour. This afternoon, I picked up three: A first-ed. U.S. hardback Bulgakov, an Ecco-Press-imitating-Black-Sparrow-Press Paul Bowles, and a stately-but-too-stately-too-prestigish-(as-opposed-to-“prestigious”) copy of William H. Gass’s In the Heart of the Heart of the Country. 

I read the devastating  “The Pedersen Kid,” the first novella in the In the Heart of the Heart of the Country collection of collected novellas a few years ago when I checked this book out of the library. Some helpful joker inscribed a map in this copy:

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Said joker also appended three ball pen inked cursive notes to the end of the tale:

“Coming-of age

Christ / resurrection

Oedipal”

I think I read the next story (it’s much shorter), “Mrs. Mean,” but I confess I can’t recall it right now. I do remember returning the book to the library though.

The design of the Paul Bowles Ecco Press edition of The Spider’s House kinda sorta matches the design of In the Heart of the Heart of the Heart of the Heart (Nonpareil Books, btw). I recently finished Up Above the World (after reading and being slightly-disappointed in the more-lauded debut The Sheltering Sky). I liked Up Above the World’s sinister slow-burn. My understanding is that The Spider’s House is considered superior, so we’ll see. (2017 is turning into The Year I Finally Read Paul Bowles).

Mikhail Bulgakov’s samizdat Soviet-era novel Master and Margarita has improved in my memory; reviewing my review of it a few years ago, I find that I remember it fondly, and stronger. (I wrote that it “sags at times”; I don’t remember the saggy bits, but I recall its fun effervescent evil bits).

Anyway, I couldn’t pass up on this first-edition U.S. copy (1968 Harcourt, Brace & World) of Bulgakov’s novel The Heart of a Dog (English translation by Michael Glenny, with jacket design by Applebaum & Curtis, Inc.).

I also took note of this cover for Edges, a 1980 sci-fi anthology edited by Ursula K. Le Guin and Virginia Kidd (and featuring authors like Thomas Disch and Gene Wolfe)—but I didn’t pick it up, mostly because I didn’t particularly have any desire to read it, even though a much younger version of me out there would’ve loved to read it. I mean, I was thinking about that younger version of me out there; maybe that version—a different version of course—will find it.

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Le Guin/Abish/Farber (Books 2.03.2017)

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I picked up this handsome hardback collection of early Ursula K. LeGuin stories last Friday when I went to my local used bookshop. I was there looking for something else.

I wasn’t looking for stories by Walter Abish (and I can’t remember how or why I picked this up, but I read part of it in the store…I mean I can’t recall why I was in the “A’s” for Atwood or Abish):

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And I wasn’t looking for essays by Jerry Farber (this weird mass market paperback was crammed into a completely wrong section—misshelved as if someone was trying to hide it. The font on the spine prompted me to pull it out, and I knew that the guy had written “The Student as Nigger”….I started reading “Why People Love Capitalism” and decided to pick it up):

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What I was looking for was Paul Bowles’s novel The Sheltering Sky, which is prominent on my to-read list after devouring The Stories of Paul Bowles. But I simply couldn’t come to terms with these covers:

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I mean, look, I know I shouldn’t care about the cover, but these are dreadful, and it this point if I’m going to own a paper book, it needs to have some aesthetic merit. Aesthetic merit like the cover for this collection:

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(I didn’t pick it up because the seven stories are in The Stories of Paul Bowles).

A last thought on covers:

The people I really wished I could write like were foreign, or dead, or both (Ursula K. Le Guin)

In high school I was, like many American intellectual kids, a stranger in a strange land. I made the Berkeley Public Library my refuge, and lived half my life in books. Not only American books—English and French novels and poetry, Russian novels in translation. Transported unexpectedly to college in another strange land, the East Coast, I majored in French lit and went on reading European lit on my own. I felt more at home in some ways in Paris in 1640 or Moscow in 1812 than in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1948.

Much as I loved my studies, their purpose was to make me able to earn a living as a teacher, so I could go on writing. And I worked hard at writing short stories. But here my European orientation was a problem. I wasn’t drawn to the topics and aims of contemporary American realism. I didn’t admire Ernest Hemingway, James Jones, Norman Mailer, or Edna Ferber. I did admire John Steinbeck, but knew I couldn’t write that way. In The New Yorker, I loved Thurber, but skipped over John O’Hara to read the Englishwoman Sylvia Townsend Warner. Most of the people I really wished I could write like were foreign, or dead, or both. Most of what I read drew me to write about Europe; but I knew it was foolhardy to write fiction set in Europe if I’d never been there.

These are the first two paragraphs of an excerpt of Ursula K. Le Guin’s introduction to her collection The Complete Orsinia; the excerpt was published in The Paris Review this week.

Three Books

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The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin. First edition mass market paperback from Ace Books, 1969. The marvelous Klimtish cover is by Leo & Diane Dillon. I wrote about the novel here.

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The Order of the Day by Marcio Souza. English translation by Thomas Colchie. First edition mass market trade paperback by Bard/Avon, 1986. No illustrator credited.

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Neuromancer by William Gibson. 1988 mass market trade paperback by Ace Books. Cover art by Richard Berry. A friend foisted this on me; I never gave it back, which was wrong. I don’t think I can overstate how important this book (and the following two in the so-called “Sprawl Trilogy”) were to me in the late nineties. In fact, Gibson was one of the first things I wrote about on this blog. (Don’t click on that link; the early days of this blog were Bad).

Le Guin/Corvo (Books acquired, 4.27.2016)


Thanks, Jon. 

I conclude now I have no inner resources (Reading/Have Read/Should Write About)

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For twenty years now Berryman’s line I conclude now I have no inner resources has been plinking around the inside of my dumb skull. The line is plinking like crazy lately, as I shuffle final exam essays into some kind of order (what order?) that might align with my ability to offer the student, the writer, some meaningful note, some suggestion for improvement, some revelatory remark. Plink plink plink. No inner resources.

It is bad to start with a complaint so I will dress up the preceding paragraph (I dress it mentally) as an apologia. (Why the hell did I decide to write about books online?!).

I’ve been reading some really great books lately, folks. People, yes, you, listen. It’s not true that I have no inner resources. I am unstuck as a reader. I’m all gummed up with what I’ve read. Well-fed. And yet I go to scribble out a, like, review and plink plink plink. Nothing.

But like I said, the reading’s been really good. From the bottom up:

Let me strongly recommend American Candide by Mahendra Singh. I recommend this book for people who enjoy laughing at tragedies that should otherwise make them weep. You can and should purchase this book from Rosarium.

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Illustration to American Candide by Mahendra Singh

Above American Candide in the stack so lazily pictured above is Yuri Herrera’s neon noir novella The Transmigration of Bodies, which I also highly recommend. I managed a few words on it here.

If you were to describe Henri Michaux’s Miserable Miracle 1956 book to me, I might politely decline with a small gesture of my hand. It’s about a guy who takes mescaline and writes about the experience and he draws these pictures and then he later takes “Indian hemp” and compares it— you might say to me, you, knowing as you know that I dig weird books, but I would cut you off at with an em dash, polite but firm, Not interested in drug novels these days (and besides dude, you know that Aldous Huxley did kinda the same thing at kinda the same time). And then you, having the book with you might press it into my hand, declaring, No, look

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—and I would say Thanks and consume the book in two sittings.

And so after a few years of false starts, I finally broke through the second chapter of Stanley Elkin’s satire The Franchiser. The many years of recommendations, exhortations (and scoldings) to read The fucking Franchiser were correct and good and now appreciated, as I work my way into the novel’s rich fat middle—but I admit it was Mr. William Gass who finally sold me on a commitment. I read his introduction published elsewhere—in A Temple of Texts—and that was that.

Thanks to Jon for sending me Ursula K. Le Guin’s essay collection The Language of the Night. The collection collects the collective introductions to Le Guin’s so-called Hainish collection, which I read this winter, and wrote about here. Not one of my editions featured the reflections Le Guin (or more likely her editors) called “Introductions” in later essays, and reading the Hainish intros is, in a very slight sense, like rereading those books. Lovely.

Last and never least: Tom Clark’s The Last Gas Station and Other Stories. I’ve thought often of Clark’s poems as stories pretending to be poems so maybe these are poems pretending to be stories. Or maybe I have no idea what the fuck I’m talking about. (Plink plink plink). I read most of them except for the longest one, “Incident at Basecamp,” which I will save save save for the future, an old habit, maybe a bad habit, that, to read all but one story in a collection, to maybe keep the collection afresh somehow or not wholly discovered—eh? Plink plink plink. Wag.

Selections from One-Star Amazon Reviews of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness

Editorial note: The following citations come from one-star Amazon reviews Ursula K. Le Guin’s novel The Left Hand of DarknessI’ve preserved the reviewers’ original punctuation and spelling. I love Le Guin’s novel, by the way, and wrote about it here.  More one-star Amazon reviews].


 

I burned this book

I don’t have a college education

I started reading this book years ago

How they kemmer (Another word for mating)?

I find the use of made up language difficult to interpret

The Left Hand of Darkness it nothing but some sort of feminist garbage

After reading just over 100 pages of this utterly worthless book

no depth of character or feeling coming thu

I was just forced to read this book

I don’t care what her father did

I haven’t read hardly any Sci Fi

as good as a warm cup of milk

no story whatsoever

no plot

I’ve read a lot of scifi

I read couple of chapters

I was forced to read this novel

I will NOT be reading any more Sci Fi

I was a biology and psychology major in college back in the mid 70’s

I think she was trying to impress people back when she originally wrote the book

Ask youself why people keep on bringing up the fact that her father was an anthropologist?

Being an honors lit. student thu high scool and college, I am no stranger to classic lit

minor cultural concepts (language, religion, hierarchy)

there are no kemmering in a pornographic sense

I could NOT follow what was even going on

I’m still trying to read my way through

My taste is sophisticated

I love Sci Fi on TV

no excitement

I read 75%

just a description of a planet

He certainly isn’t particularly manful

Give me a setting that isn’t a prescription for Prozac waiting to happen!

the jumping from old folklore stories on the planet and the tale being told

she gives characters such crazy names that it’s hard to remember who’s who

I read up to the chapter where the main character was imprisoned, and I don’t care

Some cultures belong in a petri dish and should be treated with biocide rather than respect

a totalitarian pesthole notable only for the biological oddity of its people

Is Ursula Le Guin the worst writer in American history?

dated, cumbersome and boring

Enough said

boring

Hated it

It’s about an envoy

bizarre characters and other minor details

A good candidate for the first sci-fi book burning

The author should have gone into anthropology like her great father

Nothing but some dude wandering around curious about gender roles

This was purchased and read for a book club. Absolutely no one liked it

Simply put, this book is just a 60’s retread going through a mental exercise

It is just a silly exercise in exploring what a world without genders would be like

Is Shakespeare’s daughter a good storyteller just because her father was the greatest writer ever?

the culture she has created in this book is uninteresting, unbelieveable, and sounds like the more dismal parts of New Jersey anyway

The author waste a lot of pages on unnecessary side stories

Had NO idea what was going on throughout the entire book

The worst (psudo) ethnography I have ever read

Could NOT follow the author’s train of thought

and then they kemmered

A conversation on Ursula K. Le Guin’s first novel, Rocannon’s World

After I posted a review on this site of Ursula K. Le Guin’s novel The Lathe of Heaven, the novelist Adam Novy recommended that I check out her under-read first novel, Rocannon’s World. So I did. Our email exchanges about the book developed over a few weeks (during which time I ended up reading all of Le Guin’s so-called Hainish novels), and Adam’s analysis of the novel is, I think, especially perceptive. An edit of our conversation is below.

Adam Novy’s novel The Avian Gospels is fantastic. Buy it from Hobart.

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Edwin Turner: Thanks for suggesting Rocannon’s World, Adam. I’m not really sure how I missed it in my first few forays into Le Guin—when I was younger it might not have been in my school library—but I’m glad I read it. Very vivid stuff. You told me it was your favorite Le Guin. Why?

Adam Novy: There are many reasons why I love Rocannon’s World. The beautiful and exact descriptive writing, and the syntax. Le Guin can really sing. The sadness of the heroes for their vanished civilizations. The way so many passages evoke the feel of hiking. The flying cats. The incomparable ending.

But it’s the way Le Guin explores the idea of agency sets the book apart for me. The protagonists, Semley and Rocannon, take decisive action they believe in, which sets in motion plots that spiral out of control and annihilate their intentions. Rocannon and Semley end up being massive historical figures, yet also tiny cogs in galaxy-sized machines. This comparison of the massive and the tiny is not a calculated stalemate—not the cultivated balance I think a lot of writers feel we must produce these days, as if our calculations will be checked and we might get partial credit—but an ambivalence that’s immune to human desire or even narrative. It’s one of the things I love about Le Guin. Her idea of a human being’s influence in the world is like the ancients’.

This is fascinating to me in a lot of ways, first at the level of plot. How much should a character affect the world around her? Too much power can seem unserious and thrillery, like a fantasy, like competence porn. (A possible new definition of literary fiction is “incompetence porn.”)  Le Guin is just so elegant with this. Semley and Rocannon may be important figures in their communities—Semley is a kind of Duchess and Rocannon is a government anthropologist with administrative dominion over half the galaxy—and yet, by merely performing their own social roles, they ruin everything they care about, including the context in which their identities exist. Le Guin’s formula is magical: a central figure in a community commits a deliberate act, and the consequences are massive, unforeseen, accidental, and diminish this central figure to almost nothing. And yet, despite their total disempowerment, their influence endures in major ways. But even this is misconstrued by people in the future, who tell the history. There is no linear connection between intention and result. The reader feels the ages passing every time Rocannon takes a step.

This leads to the other aspect of the plot I really love, which is political. Rocannon is a bureaucrat in a colonial hegemony, and by honestly yet patronizingly trying to protect the subjects he administrates, he initiates a plot that will destroy them, and himself. He’s a kind of blinkered, well-meaning liberal who does not know what the hell he’s really doing, or how power works, since the force that does the destroying—an anti-government entity called “the enemy”—seems to emanate from the government Rocannon works for. In the end, his people simply don’t belong on the planet, which he only learns when he, too, is a refugee.

ET: But there’s also the sense that Rocannon integrates into the planet—he marries into the Angyar at the end, although we don’t really hear that story. It’s an epilogue that fulfills the legend-structure of the tale. So, on one hand Le Guin’s written this story that’s highly ironic—especially in the ironic title, Rocannon’s World—a title that points to the novel’s themes of colonialism. On the other hand, there’s a sense of discovery and exploration—a kind of High Adventure narrative à la Verne, where our viewpoint character ascends, peers down over the planet from his flying machine (in this case a winged cat).

And then Rocannon sort of achieves his Romantic quest of attaining Semley, or rather the idea of Semley—the exotic, the beautiful, the aristocratic—by marrying into her ancestral chain, and becoming a sort of Duke. This is all very much Fairy Tale stuff, Fantasy stuff. And Le Guin isn’t really synthesizing fantasy tropes with sci-fi in Rocannon’s World. It’s more like she’s tapping into a deeper, mythic vein—so on some level, I think that the novel is really about storytelling itself. There’s something oral and episodic about it, with its riffs on Eurydice and winged men and Valhalla. I reread The Dispossessed after Rocannon’s World. The Dispossessed strikes me as more deliberately structured than Rocannon’s World—more dialectical, more focused, but also centered much more on dialogue-monologue (similar to The Lathe of Heaven). Rocannon’s World is literally more fantastical than The Dispossessed. Do you think that Le Guin’s first novel has been overlooked as a book of ideas? Continue reading “A conversation on Ursula K. Le Guin’s first novel, Rocannon’s World”

Yann Martel’s The High Mountains of Portugal (Book acquired, 1.28.2016)

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Yann Martel’s novel The High Mountains of Portugal is new in hardback in the U.S. from Speigel & Grau.

Here’s the first two paragraphs of Urusla K. Le Guin’s review of the novel in The Guardian:

The High Mountains of Portugal, in Yann Martel’s novel of that name, turn out to be grassy uplands rather than high mountains; and the book turns out to be three stories rather than a novel. The stories, connected ingeniously, vary greatly in tone and quality. The first two display so little of the author’s narrative skill that they may offer more temptation to stop reading than to go on. Liking the last part of the book much better, I could wish that it stood alone.

In Martel’s Booker-winning Life of Pi, the author within the story tells us that he went to India with the intention of writing a novel set in Portugal. Then he met the Indian who told him the tale of Pi, and Portugal was forgotten. It’s recollected in the first part of this book in great detail: “He heads off down Rue São Miguel on to Largo São Miguel and then Rua de São João da Praça before turning on to Arco de Jesus.” This sort of street-rosary may delight Lisbon initiates but to others is made interesting only by the fact that the protagonist, Tomas, is walking backwards, and that he always does so. After some elaborate rationales for walking backwards, and a farcical encounter with a lamppost, we learn that he walks with “his back to the world, his back to God”, not because he is grieving for the sudden, recent death of his wife, his child, and his father, but because “he is objecting”.

Read the rest of Le Guin’s review.

A riff on Ursula K. Le Guin’s Hainish novels

 

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“Are we not Men?”

— The Island of Dr. Moreau, H.G. Wells (1896)

“A country, a people…Those are strange and very difficult ideas.”

— Four Ways to Forgivenss, Ursula K. Le Guin (1995)

—Each of the novels in Ursula K. Le Guin’s so-called Hainish cycle obliquely addresses Wells’s question by tackling those strange and very difficult ideas of “a country, a people.” The best of these Hainish books do so in a manner that synthesizes high-adventure sci-fi fantasy with dialectical philosophy.

—What am I calling here “the best”? Well—

The Left Hand of Darkness

Planet of Exile/City of Illusions (treat as one novel in two discursive parts)

The Dispossessed

—(How oh how oh how dare I rank The Dispossessed—clearly a masterpiece, nay?—so low on that little list? It’s too dialectical, maybe? Too light on the, uh, high adventure stuff, on the fantasy and romance and sci-fi. Its ideas are too finely wrought, well thought out, expertly cooked (in contrast to the wonderful rawness of Rocannon’s World, for example). None of this is to dis The Dispossessed—it’s probably the best of the Hainish books, and the first one casual readers should attend to. (It was also the first one I read way back when in high school)).

—The novels in Le Guin’s so-called Hainish cycle are

Rocannon’s World (1966)

Planet of Exile (1966)

City of Illusions (1967)

The Left Hand of Darkness (1969)

The Dispossessed (1974)

The Word for World is Forest (1976)

Four Ways to Forgiveness (1995)

The Telling (2000)

—Okay, so I decided to include For Ways to Forgiveness in the above list even though most people wouldn’t call it a “novel” — but its four stories (novellas, really) are interconnected and tell a discrete story of two interconnected planets that are part of the Hainish world. And I pulled a quote from it above. So.

—I read, or reread, Le Guin’s so-called Hainish cycle close to the chronological order proposed by the science fiction writer Ian Watson. I don’t necessarily recommend this order.

—(I keep modifying “Hainish cycle” with “so-called” because the books aren’t really a cycle. Le Guin’s world-building isn’t analogous to Tolkien’s Middle Earth or Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County. (Except when her world-building is analogous). But let us return to order).

Le Guin on the subject:

People write me nice letters asking what order they ought to read my science fiction books in — the ones that are called the Hainish or Ekumen cycle or saga or something. The thing is, they aren’t a cycle or a saga. They do not form a coherent history. There are some clear connections among them, yes, but also some extremely murky ones. And some great discontinuities (like, what happened to “mindspeech” after Left Hand of Darkness? Who knows? Ask God, and she may tell you she didn’t believe in it any more.)

OK, so, very roughly, then:

Rocannon’s World, Planet of Exile, City of Illusions: where they fit in the “Hainish cycle” is anybody’s guess, but I’d read them first because they were written first. In them there is a “League of Worlds,” but the Ekumen does not yet exist.

—I agree with the author. Read this trilogy first. Read it as one strange book.

—(Or—again—pressed for time and wanting only the essential, read The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness—but you already knew that, no?).

Continue reading “A riff on Ursula K. Le Guin’s Hainish novels”

If civilization has an opposite, it is war (Ursula K. Le Guin)

Tibe spoke on the radio a good deal. Estraven when in power had never done so, and it was not in the Karhidish vein: their government was not a public performance, normally; it was covert and indirect. Tibe, however, orated. Hearing his voice on the air I saw again the long-toothed smile and the face masked with a net of fine wrinkles. His speeches were long and loud: praises of Karhide, disparagements of Orgoreyn vilifications of “disloyal factions,” discussions of the “integrity of the Kingdom’s borders,” lectures in history and ethics and economics, all in a ranting, canting, emotional tone that went shrill with vituperation or adulation. He talked much about pride of country and love of the parentland, but little about shifgrethor, personal pride or prestige. Had Karhide lost so much prestige in the Sinoth Valley business that the subject could not be brought up? No; for he often talked about the Sinoth Valley. I decided that he was deliberately avoiding talk of shifgrethor because he wished to rouse emotions of a more elemental, uncontrollable kind. He wanted to stir up something which the whole shifgrethor-pattern was a refinement upon, a sublimation of. He wanted his hearers to be frightened and angry. His themes were not pride and love at all, though he used the words perpetually; as he used them they meant self-praise and hate. He talked a great deal about Truth also, for he was, he said, “cutting down beneath the veneer of civilization.”

It is a durable, ubiquitous, specious metaphor, that one about veneer (or paint, or pliofilm, or whatever) hiding the nobler reality beneath. It can conceal a dozen fallacies at once. One of the most dangerous is the implication that civilization, being artificial, is unnatural: that it is the opposite of primitiveness… Of course there is no veneer, the process is one of growth, and primitiveness and civilization are degrees of the same thing. If civilization has an opposite, it is war. Of those two things, you have either one, or the other. Not both. It seemed to me as I listened to Tibe’s dull fierce speeches that what he sought to do by fear and by persuasion was to force his people to change a choice they had made before their history began, the choice between those opposites.

From Ursula Le Guin’s 1969 novel The Left Hand of Darkness. The bold emphases are mine—mea culpa, I couldn’t help it.

Three Books

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Homesick: New & Selected Stories by Lucia Berlin. Lovely Black Sparrow trade edition, 1990; design by Barbara Martin. An amazing book, a revelation to me. I picked it up looking for the posthumous collection A Manual for Cleaning Women (that track is collected here) based on, well, the hype. But the hype was more than right, and I feel simultaneously abashed that I didn’t know Berlin before and grateful to know her writing now.

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Three Hainish Novels by Ursula K. Le Guin. An omnibus collecting Rocannon’s WorldPlanet of Exile, and City of Illusions. 1967 hardcover by Nelson Doubleday. Jacket design by John Lisco; cover illustration by Jack Woolhiser. I finished City of Illusions this weekend—probably the most accomplished of her earliest (non-)trilogy, synthesizing high adventure into a philosophical exploration of truth and lie. A reread of The Left Hand of Darkness is next.img_1187

Purity and Danger by Mary Douglas. 1988 trade paperback by ARK. No designer or cover artist credited. I dug this out at some point in my big Le Guin read/re-read, and it’s been hanging around since. Can’t remember why.

Three Books

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Masquerade and Other Stories by Robert Walser. English translation by Susan Bernofsky. 1990 trade paperback published by The Johns Hopkins UP. Cover design and lettering by Ann Walston. The illustration is a detail from Adolf Wölfli’s 1917 Arnica Flower. This was the first Walser I read.IMG_1042 IMG_1043

The Leopard by Giuseppe di Lampedusa. English translation by Archibald Colqhoun. A 1966 trade paperback from Time Life Books. Cover design by Jerome Moriarty. I’m not sure why, but I just love the design of this book—I love that there’s no blurb on the back too.IMG_1017

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin. First printing of an Ace Books mass market paperback. No designer is credited, but the cover art, reminiscent of Gustav Klimt, is by Leo and Diane Dillon.

Lucia Berlin/Ursula K. Le Guin (Books acquired, 12.11.2015)

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Went to the bookstore this afternoon to pick up the much-acclaimed collection of stories by Lucia Berlin, A Manual for Cleaning Women (typing out the title, I suddenly hear its ambiguities). My trusty local used bookshop didn’t have a copy, but they did have Homesick, and I love Black Sparrow editions, so hey, cool.

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I’ve been tearing through Ursula K. Le Guin’s Hainish novels lately after picking up Rocannon’s World at sorta-random. I’m in the middle of City of Illusion right now, having finished (a third read of) The Dispossessed (fantastic), The Word for World Is Forest (a bit too on-the-nose critique of the Vietnam War; also, James Cameron should send Le Guin some Avatar bucks), and Planet of Exile, which was great. (And oh: George R.R. Martin should send Le Guin some Game of Thrones bucks for that one: Planet of Exile has barbarian invaders from the north, seasons that last for decades, a constant fear that “winter is coming,” and its own white walkers (snow ghouls)).

So well and anyway: I already have a copy of The Left Hand of Darkness, which is the next title in the sequence in which I’m reading the Hainish books. My pilfered copy isfrom years back, and I’ve read it a few times—but I just couldn’t pass up this first edition copy with its lovely Klimtesque cover art by Leo and Diane Dillon.

Riff on recent reading

I can’t seem to muster language lately, to make the words do what I want them to do.

I’ve read a number of excellent (or really good) books in the past few months and haven’t been able to write more than the first few sentences of an ostensible “review” before giving up…mostly because those first few sentences usually resemble the kind of boring moaning dithering whining I’m doing now.

There were the two red books by Anne Carson: Autobiography of Red and Red Doc>.  BLCKDGRD sent them to me back in September and I wolfed them down. Autobiography is the superior volume (which is saying something because Red Doc> is grand stuff too). What is it? What is Autobiography of Red? A novel? A poem? A history? An essay? Shall I get bogged down in description? No? Instead, let me be clear:

What I want to think/feel when I read is, How is this possible? How is this allowed?

–which is what I thought/felt reading Autobiography of Red.

From Autobiography of Red:


What else, what else?

Okay, so after the Carson I did manage a review Kazuo Ishiguro’s fantasy novel The Buried Giant—why did a review come out so much easier than anything on Carson, or, say, The Free-Lance Pall Bearers by Ishmael Reed (which I read after the Ishiguro)? Ishiguro’s book was familiar territory, fairly easy to describe—the Carson novel-poems and Reed’s picaresque performance are wholly different animals than the conventional novel.

The Free-Lance Pall Bearers by Ishmael Reed is, I hate to say, dazzling. I know what a lazy term that is, but the novella is just that—it dazzles. It zips. It zings and zounds and skips and scatters, and just when you think you have a handle on its allegorical outlines, it sticks out its tongue and jeers at you. The Free-Lance Pall Bearers is a mirthful and merciless satire on the USA written in a howling vernacular and set in an outhouse. It’s abject, picaresque, volatile, hysterical (in several of the senses of that word). I will relieve myself from summarizing the plot and instead offer this image of its perfect epigraphs:


Okay and so then I read Joanna Walsh’s collection Vertigo. The stories here hum together, evoking consciousness—consciousness’s anxieties, desires, its imaginative consolations. It deserves a full proper review (or just take my word and buy it from The Dorothy Project), but in the meantime, a wonderful passage from “Half the World Over”:


I also read two more by Le Guin: Rocannon’s World (I hope to have an exchange on it with the novelist Adam Novy posted some time in the not-too-distant future), The Dispossessed, which I’ve read three times.

Also: Paul Kirchner’s The Bus 2, which, again, full review in the not-so-far-off-future. But until then, a sample:

04

A planet spoiled by the human species (Ursula K. Le Guin)

My world, my Earth, is a ruin. A planet spoiled by the human species. We multiplied and gobbled and fought until there was nothing left, and then we died. We controlled neither appetite nor violence; we did not adapt. We destroyed ourselves. But we destroyed the world first. There are no forests left on my Earth. The air is grey, the sky is grey, it is always hot. It is habitable, it is still habitable, but not as this world is. This is a living world, a harmony. Mine is a discord. You Odonians chose a desert; we Terrans made a desert. . . . We survive there as you do. People are tough! There are nearly a half billion of us now. Once there were nine billion. You can see the old cities still everywhere. The bones and bricks go to dust, but the little pieces of plastic never do—they never adapt either. We failed as a species, as a social species. We are here now, dealing as equals with other human societies on other worlds, only because of the charity of the Hainish. They came; they brought us help. They built ships and gave them to us, so we could leave our ruined world. They treat us gently, charitably, as the strong man treats the sick one. They are a very strange people, the Hainish; older than any of us; infinitely generous. They are altruists. They are moved by a guilt we don’t even understand, despite all our crimes. They are moved in all they do, I think, by the past, their endless past. Well, we had saved what could be saved, and made a kind of life in the ruins, on Terra, in the only way it could be done: by total centralization. Total control over the use of every acre of land, every scrap of metal, every ounce of fuel. Total rationing, birth control, euthanasia, universal conscription into the labor force. The absolute regimentation of each life toward the goal of racial survival. We had achieved that much, when the Hainish came. They brought us . . . a little more hope. Not very much. We have outlived it. . . . We can only look at this splendid world, this vital society, this Urras, this Paradise, from the outside. We are capable only of admiring it, and maybe envying it a little. Not very much.

From Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1974 novel The Dispossessed.

Even pain counts (Ursula K. Le Guin)

Fulfillment, Shevek thought, is a function of time. The search for pleasure is circular, repetitive, atemporal. The variety seeking of the spectator, the thrill hunter, the sexually promiscuous, always ends in the same place. It has an end. It comes to the end and has to start over. It is not a journey and return, but a closed cycle, a locked room, a cell.Outside the locked room is the landscape of time, in which the spirit may, with luck and courage, construct the fragile, makeshift, improbable roads and cities of fidelity: a landscape inhabitable by human beings.

It is not until an act occurs within the landscape of the past and the future that it is a human act. Loyalty, which asserts the continuity of past and future, binding time into a whole, is the root of human strength; there is no good to be done without it.

So, looking back on the last four years, Shevek saw them not as wasted, but as part of the edifice that he and Takver were building with their lives. The thing about working with time, instead of against it, he thought, is that it is not wasted. Even pain counts.

From Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1974 novel The Dispossessed.