Books I read in April
Guy Gavriel Kay, Ysabel
Ned Marriner has gone to Provence with his father for six weeks while his mother works in the Sudan, with Doctors Without Borders. His father will shoot cathedrals; Ned will, supposedly, have the time of his life, even if has to write school papers while he does it. First he meets a girl named Kate Wegner, and then he meets a man who lifts up grates in the cathedral and somehow knows that a centuries-old image of the Queen of Sheba is not really an image of the Queen of Sheba, and then things get weird.
Ysabel is the first novel with anything like a contemporary setting that Kay’s written since The Fionavar Tapestry, and perhaps YA, since it has a teenage main character. (I didn’t feel as if it were YA, in the sense that it didn’t seem as if the sole focus of the story were Ned’s growing up. But then, several other reviews I’ve read complained that Ned is not like a “real” teenager—which may have helped make him more appealing to me. Take this as you will). There are still mystical, magical passages, dense foreshadowing, grand passion and love hanging about in the background, and a keen sense of history; it’s Kay, after all. But they’re not the only things in the story any more, as they also need to contend with the mystical world crossing over into the daylight, Ned’s increasingly weird life, and danger to his friends.
I liked it. (But you may not; see aforementioned warning about Ned not being a “real” teenager). It didn’t feel as passionate as Kay’s other novels have, especially the Fionavar Tapestry, but I was never bored with it, and there are several passages that overcame my extreme distrust of Anything Celtic and got me to roll with them. If there are inaccuracies about the contemporary technology, another complaint in some reviews, well, I have a tin ear for them, so I didn’t notice. And I adored Ned’s aunt and uncle.
This is the first book where Kay’s writing tics have driven me quite mad. In this case, the most prominent of them is that he starts calling everyone by first and last names about halfway through the book—Ned is the only major exception I can think of—so that Ned’s father is almost never just “father” or “Edward” or “Marriner” but “Edward Marriner.” All the time. In the narration. I can’t tell you why that made me want to scream, but it did.
As with the ending of The Last Light of the Sun, the ending of Ysabel felt like there were threads in place I didn’t understand, or threads I hadn’t noticed until then, or ones I’d missed because I read too fast, or—and I don’t want to think this—Kay was relying just a bit too much on plot coincidence. I can’t say more without spoiling it.
And finally, for a personal pet peeve, there are a few too many times when Ned shocks the immortal characters into silence. They’ve lived centuries, they would probably have asked themselves these questions, okay?
But other than that, enjoyable book.
Virgina Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, reread
I first read this five years ago, and have occasionally glanced into it since then, but never sat down and read the whole thing start to finish. It’s worth doing so, and if I think about it I might make a once-yearly tradition of it. Or something.
As everyone who’s familiar with Woolf probably knows, this book is based on lectures she gave when asked to talk about “Women and Fiction,” and concentrate primarily on what women need in order to write. “A room of one’s own and five hundred pounds a year,” is the way Woolf puts it. Throughout this, she wanders through a good deal of English literature, talking about the low reputations of writing women before the nineteenth century. Women wrote under pseudonyms, or were considered crazy for wanting to write, or never wrote at all and went mad and died. The most famous part of the book is probably “Shakespeare’s sister,” where Woolf imagines Shakespeare’s sister, Judith, a woman just as talented as he was, but unable to express herself because of her gender, finally dying by suicide. A letter-writer or a diarist might have escaped, but not a poet or a playwright. The second most famous part might be where she points out that conversations between men, or between men and women, are relatively common in books, but conversations about women (when they’re not about men or children) are nearly nonexistent.
Since this was written in the 1920’s, most theories and conjectures concerning writing women have changed, and most people studying it no longer consider the British canon of women writers the only one that can exist. They’ve found authors Woolf knew nothing about, or rescued the reputations of those who might have been mocked and laughed at in her time. But I think it’s still valuable, if only because too many of the freshman students I know now tend the other way, and believe there was never a time when men and women weren’t equal, or treated equally as artists. So the silence about women is preserved by denying it ever existed, while, just coincidentally, still treating male authors as the center of the canon (because “men wrote all the good stuff,” of course). Woolf’s is the kind of book that makes me think I’d like to spend a few months or years only reading books by women, to see if there is some sort of qualitative difference, and for the pleasure involved.
Ian McDonald, River of Gods
This is a book I’ve heard so much discussion about that I wanted to read it, even though I normally don’t go for “harder” science fiction. I’m glad I did, if only because I went in cat-stepping and thinking I would understand almost nothing, and wound up understanding much more than that, so it’s broken a barrier that was preventing me from reading “difficult” science fiction. It also helps that this book tackles a theme I love: the coexistence of the human and the nonhuman.
It’s set in 2047, in India, or the nationalized remnants of what was once India, the one place in the world where aeai (A.I.) superintelligences still have some chance of existing. The U.S. and most other countries have created laws that mandate the destruction of all A.I.’s above a certain level. One of the main characters, Mr. Nandha, is a Krishna Cop, who “excommunicates” rogue A.I’.s, but “wild” programmers still exist out in urban jungles, constructing the rogues or protecting them when they find them.
This is an enormous novel, ranging through all sorts of characters who become connected to each other by weird, tangential currents. One viewpoint character, Najia, is a newspaper reporter who’s gradually caught up in the growing currents of a fundamentalist Hindu revolution and so meets Tal, one of the “nutes,” the engineered third non-sex. Mr. Nandha and his lonely, country-bred wife, Parvati, eventually collide with government officials, and from there the story spins out towards collision with two Westerners: Thomas Lull, who’s come to India to get lost, and Lisa Durnau, who’s come to find him. Tal and several other characters are involved, more or less by accident, in local politics themselves. And so on.
My favorite character was definitely Tal. Yt (this pronoun is used for nutes throughout the book) wanders more or less innocently into the larger story, but then fights to keep yts feet, survive, and understand what’s going on through yts personality traits like courage, rather than super-powers or government contacts. I also liked Parvati, but, perhaps because she’s not in as much danger, she doesn’t get as much chance to change. Najia is a bit creepy—a blood junkie, who gets sexually aroused by watching bio-engineered cats tear themselves apart—but she has strength when it counts. None of the plot threads were boring, though I found some harder to understand than others.
Definitely can see why this was a Hugo nominee. This is exactly the kind of “big” story that I like; it becomes the story of a whole world, with the “position of central importance” moving from one character to another, hovering on them like a spotlight, and then darting away again, rather than artificially being shoved back to concentrate on just one person with innate advantages. Good stuff.
Ursula K. LeGuin, The Left Hand of Darkness
(I finally discovered that my campus library does, in fact, have a good pile of LeGuin books. For some reason, they were listing them under G, as if her last name were Guin, which was why I had never found them).
I knew most of the concept of this book before I started it: that it takes place on a planet largely without gender, as the natives remain sexless except when they go into kemmer once a month, and then assume either male or female form depending on the hormones of people around them. They can become pregnant with children or father them indiscriminately. And the major storyteller is an outside observer from a coalition of worlds, sent to Gethen as an ambassador.
It’s been a while since I read a LeGuin novel I was unfamiliar with, and I’d forgotten that she does characters, as well as language, really well. Or well for me, at least. I liked both Genly Ai, the ambassador, and Estraven—which is a last name or title, rather than a first name—the major Gethenian character. I hadn’t realized both told the story, first-person, with smaller chapters in the form of research reports from the Ekumen, Genly’s coalition of worlds, or Gethenian history-stories. That expanded the scope of the story, and kept it from seeming too much like just a fish-out-of-water book.
The basic plot: Estraven, who’s risked a great deal trying to persuade the King of Karhide to listen to Genly, abruptly falls from the royal favor, and is exiled to the neighboring nation. Genly inevitably comes there, and finds out that the Gethenian society isn’t as perfect as he pictured it. The politicians there can be as stupid as the politicians elsewhere, and, partially because of fear about the Ekumen but also because people are stupid, a war is brewing, for the first time in Gethenian history. Genly and Estraven stand a chance of stopping it, if they can only get people to listen to them.
Gethen is a utopian world in the sense that they haven’t had a war before this and their technological revolution has been spread out over a long period of time rather than crammed into a century and a half, but lack of gender most of the time doesn’t solve all the problems. I appreciated this, as part of my problem with some feminist fantasy and SF has been the idea that if you just invert everything, all the problems are solved, which does not make allowances for the idea that stupidity and stubbornness are not limited to one gender. (And if your idea of women were to be drawn solely from the female protagonists of the worse kind of fantasy novels, you would probably conclude that women are far more stubborn then men, as well as far more unforgiving). LeGuin describes the story in one of her essays, “Is Gender Necessary?”, as a step sideways rather than a solution. She wanted to see what was left, what was human, if she stripped the idea of gender away. (It’s debatable whether this works).
My favorite part of this story was, believe it or not, the description. Estraven and Genly spend a lot of time traveling together, but the travel is exceedingly difficult and dangerous, not the light jog it is in many journey plots that’s meant to give characters time to bond. And yet, Genly and Estraven manage to bond anyway. And far more effectively than most people just stumbling through a fantasy wonderland manage, too.
If science fiction is solely considered to be about starships, chemistry, and physics, I’m less likely to get on with it. I’m a lot more interested in biology, anthropology, history, and sociology. And The Left Hand of Darkness does all of them well.
Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa, eds., This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color
(Digression: I want to say I read this before. I distinctly remember checking this book out of the library about eight years ago. It was at a point when I knew no one who called herself a “feminist” in my high school years and the only people who did so in my undergraduate experience were crazy. I mean, seriously crazy. “Believing that Ronald Reagan gave people seizures with his voice” crazy. I’d decided that the only way I was ever going to learn what feminists believed was to go find books about it, without the anti-feminist people and the crazy people getting in my way. If the arguments were convincing, they would convince me; if they weren’t, they wouldn’t. I met the arguments, and they convinced me. Alas, I can’t remember if I ever read this book all the way through, or finished reading it).
This is an anthology of letters, interviews, poems, and essays—though a few pieces border on short stories—by “women of color” in the United States. This includes African-American women, Latina women (of various nationalities, including Cuban and Puerto Rican), Native American women (of various tribes), and Asian-American women (again of various nationalities, including Chinese, Japanese, and Korean). I’ve heard of some of these women outside the feminist history classes I took a few years ago, a few others inside them. Others I’ve never heard of.
The book is divided into various sections addressing different topics, such as “Racism in the Women’s Movement” and “El Mundo Zurdo [The Left-Handed World],” or visions for the future. The “Racism in the Women’s Movement” section is probably the most disturbing to a white feminist, such as I consider myself now. The idea that white American women need to educate themselves on other cultures, not rely on Third World women to do it for them, is the most prominent concept here, appearing again and again. Many of the authors in this book received regular calls from white feminists for a list of “experts” they could put on paper or call on to appear at conferences, thus reducing them to tokens.
Notes on individual pieces that greatly struck me:
“An Open Letter to Mary Daly” and “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” by Audre Lorde—Lorde first addresses Mary Daly, author of Gyn/Ecology, on the disturbing issue of why she purports to represent all women in her study of religion, but then leaves out African goddesses and non-European women in general. (The only quotes from African women in the book are in the chapters on FGM, thus reducing them to one of their cultural practices). In the second essay, she nails the white women who remain in universities and use tools that belong mainly to white men. They are being coopted by, not coopting, the tools around them. They are still afraid of difference, and cannot educate themselves about Third World women. Why not? Lorde’s answer is the title of the essay: the investigative methods they are trying to use are inherently racist, sexist, imperialist, and homophobic. Their only chance is to actually listen to Third World women and do the hard work that the academies are designed to simplify.
“Lesbianism: an Act of Resistance” by Cheryl Clarke—This is partially general, as the statement “For a woman to be a lesbian in a male-supremacist, capitalist, misogynist, racist, homophobic, imperialist culture, such as that of North America, is an act of resistance” makes clear, but mostly focused on the intersection of racism, sexism, and homophobia in the African-American community. African-American men, in Clarke’s view, had been told they had special privileges by virtue of being male and heterosexual, but those “privileges” really meant very little without white skin and money. Thus a black lesbian challenged the men of her race in ways they weren’t used to being challenged, because while she could join them in anti-racist struggles, she would not give in to the practice of male sexual domination.
“I Come With No Illusions” by Mirtha Quintales—This is an open letter by a Latina woman to her white lover. She is leaving her and going back to her Latina sisters, because that is the one place she can really breathe freely, work freely, talk freely. She’s a bit sorry for this, but most of the letter is about her chances, her need and longing to make a connection with people who share the same experiences she does (when for most of history it has been the other way around where white and Latino/a people are concerned). “It is after all, great personal need, not political analysis that drives me to take this stand, to turn away from my American sisters and put all my energies into creating a community with my Latina sisters.” The letter is much less like a confession and much more like a declaration of freedom.
“Speaking in Tongues: A Letter to Third World Women Writers” by Gloria Anzaldúa—She talks openly about the terror of writing, how Third World women tend to be silenced because they’re constantly told that their words mean nothing. Anzaldúa has felt that herself; “Who am I, a poor Chicanita from the sticks, to think I could write?” Third World women also tend to have a lack of time to write, because their jobs, caring for their families, and their constant terror of exposure and annihilation oppress them. But Anzaldúa urges them to do so anyway, and to write from the body, from their experiences, with all the “noise” that American white culture has silenced because it doesn’t like it.
“Invisibility Is an Unnatural Disaster: Reflections of an Asian American Woman” by Mitsuye Yamada—This is a personal essay. Yamada is a Japanese-American woman who managed to “fit in”; she was an English teacher, middle-class, the mother of four children. Then she started to stand up against discrimination, and everyone white around her was startled, because “she wasn’t like those noisy women” [the white feminists]. Some of her employers actually thought she was being used as a front for the white feminists at first. Yamada realized she’d fit not only into the middle-class, but into the stereotype of Asian-American women as perfectly submissive, contented, and invisible. The rest of the essay is about reflections on the internment camps used on the Japanese-Americans during World War II. Her brother was forced to leave college because he was considered a threat, despite being a pacifist, but no one made Yamada leave. She now thinks it’s because she wasn’t perceived as a threat at all, being a Japanese-American female.
C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, reread
I also got this from my campus library. (They have a lot of speculative fiction authors, as long as they’ve crossed that indefinable boundary into “literature”).
I read the Narnia books first of any kind of “fantasy,” as opposed to fables and fairy tales. I read them because of the Talking Beasts. I was pretty much interested in any kind of story when I was a kid as long as it had nonhuman characters. After Lewis came McCaffrey and Tolkien. But I hadn’t read any of the Narnia books through again in years, and since Dawn Treader had been my favorite of the lot, I wanted to see how it held up.
The answer was: pretty damn well, for me. That may be childhood nostalgia talking. But I still like the description of the sea serpent and the process Eustace goes through to become a dragon, and the adventure of the Dark Island still gives me shivers, and for years the meal served on Ramandu’s island was my standard of what a fantasy meal should look like:
There were turkeys and geese and peacocks, there were boar’s heads and sides of venison, there were pies shaped like ships under full sail or like dragons and elephants, there were ice puddings and bright lobsters and gleaming salmon, there were nuts and grapes, pineapples and peaches, pomegranates and melons and tomatoes. There were flagons of gold and silver and curiously wrought glass; and the smell of the fruit and the wine blew towards them like a promise of all happiness.
I wonder now if the Narnia books weren’t the source of my fondness for intense but short passages of description. That passage I quoted above says a lot more in a lot fewer words than many of the descriptions of courts I’ve read in, say, Robin Hobb’s books. Lewis’s books are short on character development compared to Hobb’s, but the description is much more to my taste.
Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, reread
I have The Ladies of Grace Adieu coming, but I read Strange & Norrell only once, two years ago. I wanted to refresh my memory before stepping back into Clarke’s world.
And again, I loved it, though there was much more about Clarke’s book than about Lewis’s which I’d forgotten. The exact character of Jonathan Strange, for example, or why I don’t think the ending is very sad.
And the gentleman with thistle-down hair! He’s a nasty fairy, and he actually does nasty things. This is a change from all the books with “malicious” fairies who brag and threaten, but then never actually hurt anyone, or only people the narrator doesn’t care about. The gentleman with thistle-down hair gets into everything, and he’s the only fairy I’ve read about that genuinely seems to have no moral code.
This book also helped me clarify what kind of stories involving secrets I like: Mr. Norrell gets in trouble and gets other people in trouble because he lies about the kind of magic he’s capable of and done, in his fear and his desire to be regarded as the sole source and fount of English magic. I much prefer this to stories where characters misunderstand each other by coincidence, or don’t tell each other the truth out of sullen pride or mistrust that the characters involved have done nothing to earn. (For example, the hero hates all women because a woman once betrayed him, so he will tell the heroine nothing, naturally). Those stories make me want to tear my ears off, particularly when the secret-keeping character is treated with kid gloves. But Mr. Norrell’s punishment comes from his fear and what he costs other people and himself, so this is perfectly acceptable.
Finally, a personal note on sentence rhythm: I do not know why, but to my ears British nineteenth-century novels have a rhythm to the sentences, from Austen down to Wilde, that sounds perfect. I don’t hear it in eighteenth-century work, and sometimes I think Joyce has whatever the opposite of it is. But nineteenth-century novels kind of drown me, and Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell does that exact thing.
Ursula K. LeGuin, Changing Planes
This is a short story collection mostly written like a series of ethnographies. The idea is that, once you get bored and disgusted enough in airports, you can visit other planes—a method of travel introduced in our world by a woman named Sita Dulip in the initial story. The rest of the stories are about the other planes, and not connected other than by the method of travel and the Interplanary Agency who run the hotels and sometimes keep members of other species out.
Mostly, the stories are formed by adding an extra feature to or subtracting something from what we consider essential to being human, such as a tendency to grow wings (“The Fliers of Gy”) or the ability to keep our dreams to ourselves (“Social Dreaming of the Frin”). My two favorite stories were the ones where the implications went deeper.
“Seasons of the Ansarac” is one of those. The Ansarac are people whose main physical difference is beaks and bird crests instead of human faces, but they also have the imperative to migrate, spending the autumn and winter of their world’s very long year in the south, but the spring and summer in the north, raising children, farming, and making love. There’s a brief description of the people who tried to interrupt the migration by telling the Ansarac they were behaving like animals, and they should be able to do whatever they wanted all year and have as many children as they liked, but the main focus of the story is the description of their world as it is.
Nobody interferes with the older couples, recourting, refashioning their marriage. But Kimimmid had better look out. A young man comes across the meadow one evening, a young man Shuku never met before; his birthplace is some miles away. He has heard of Shuku’s beauty. He sits and talks with her. He tells her that he is building a new house, in a grove of trees, a pretty spot, nearer her home than his. He would like her advice on how to build the house. He would like very much to dance with her sometime. Maybe this evening, just for a little, just a step or two, before he goes away?
He is a wonderful dancer. Dancing with him on the grass in the late evening of early spring, Shuku feels that she is flying on a great wind, and she closes her eyes, her hands float out from her sides as if on that wind, and meet his hands…
This really is domestic fantasy. And anyone who says that a story needs a war to be interesting has never read it.
“The Nna Mmoy Language” is the other I loved. It’s also mostly description, taking place on a plane with very little ecology—only a few insects, trees, a single species of human-like people, and the bacteria. The Nna Mmoy language is virtually impossible for outsiders to learn, because each syllable can mean dozens of different things depending not only on what comes before it but what comes after it or might come after it. Their writing is
not linear, either horizontally or vertically, but radial, budding out in all directions, like tree branches or growing crystals, from a first or central word which, once the text is complete, may well be neither the center nor the beginning of the statement. Literary texts carry this polydirectional complexity to such an extreme that they resemble mazes, roses, artichokes, sunflowers, fractal patterns.
Their ecology is reduced, and so their language has become complex, in response. Since I love both other species and complexities in writing, you can imagine how powerfully this struck me.
I have a whole pile of books and am not sure what I’ll begin with next. Maybe the biography of James Tiptree, Jr. Or Joanna Russ’s The Female Man. Or Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light.