Ursula K. Le Guin’s Rocannon’s World & No Time to Spare

Last year the Library of America  published two volumes of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Hainish stories and novels. I was not familiar with  her early work:  I began reading her in the 1990s.  My favorite of her books is The Birthday of the World and Other Stories.  

I recently finished her first novella, Rocannon’s World, a simple, endearingly awkward effort that does not, I must stress, presage her later brilliance.  It is an uncomplicated swords-and-sorcery fantasy, albeit with a time-traveling anthropologist, primitive races in need of the future’s help, and a queen who wastes years traveling in a spaceship to recover a stolen necklace. It isn’t a bad book; it’s just not something I would ordinarily read.   If you don’t know her work, you should start with two of her SF Classics,  The Left Hand of Darkness, which won  the Hugo and Nebula awards in 1970, and The Dispossessed (both in this volume). And then you’ll understand what she tries to do in her first book.

I also recently read her last book,  No Time to Spare:  Thinking About What Matters, a collection of writings from her blog. She writes in the preface that she was inspired to write a blog after reading Jose Saramago’s blog, which was published in the U.S. as The Notebook.

Some of her blog entries are brilliant.   In the first blog, “In Your Spare Time,” she  asks questions about aging, the future, and the bland prevarications of the Harvard establishment.  She writes analytic answers to an alumni questionnaire she received from Harvard before the 60th reunion of the class of 1951. Le Guin graduated from Radcliffe, which is affiliated with Harvard, but Harvard sent the silly questionnaire.  She points out how shallow the questions are.  Question 12 asks how her grandchildren have done, “given your expectations.”

Actually, I don’t exactly have expectations.  I have hopes, and fears.  Mostly the fears predominate these days.  When my kids were young I could still hope we might not totally screw up the environment for them, but now that we’ve done so, and are more deeply sold out than ever to profiteering industrialism with its future horizon of a few months, any hope that coming generations may have ease and peace in life has become very tenuous, and has to reach far, far into the dark.

She comes right out and says what she thinks, not softening it.  She can sound a bit cranky, as she summarizes her political views in the coded language of sociology–and I don’t always agree with what she says–but what she says is always thought-provoking.

She is incensed by the imprecise language on the questionnaire, and what she sees as right-wing assumptions.  And then there is the lack of knowledge about old age.  She writes,

But it was Question 18 that really got me down. “In your spare time, what do you do?  (check all that apply).”  And the list begins:  “Golf…”

She asks, Do people in their eighties have “spare time”?   She writes about how people nowadays are programmed to be on a treadmill of activities, but her  generation grew up with time to read, write, and daydream. She says her time is fully occupied:  she embroiders, writes, shops for groceries, cooks, washes the dishes, construes Virgil, and reads Krazy Cat.  She says Harvard relegates her writing of poetry and prose to “a creative activity.”  As more and more of her time is devoted to body maintenance, an aspect of aging that none of us likes to think about, she finds Harvard’s questions absurd and infuriating.

“The Sissy Strikes Back” is also about aging.  She paints a realistic picture of what aging really entails:  it is not “You’re as old as you feel.”  There is pain,  arthritis, the slowing down, needing rides to the grocery store, and luck and money may or may not prolong life: it is not about positive thinking or fitness.

She writes many charming blogs about her cat, Pard.  If you’re a cat person, you’ll love them!  I loved them.  She finds the constant repetition of the word “fucking”  in movies and books boring. Proverbs like “You can’t have your cake and eat it too” make no sense to her.  She also rages about the lowering of educational and moral standards.

Since our betrayed public school system can no longer teach much history or reading, people may find everyone and everything before about twenty-five years ago unimaginably remote and incomprehensibly different from themselves.  They defend their discomfort by dismissing people before their time as simple, quaint, naive, etc.  I know Americans sixty-five years ago were nothing of the sort.

I agree with so much here.  She is eloquent: I kept marking pages with post-its.  In “About Anger,” she admits on a personal level to jealousy, hatred and fear. She says anger is a mixed blessing in political activism:  necessary but nursed too long it can be destructive.  She hopes “our republic survives this orgy of self-indulgent rage.”  She thinks that the “prolonged ‘festival of cruelty’ in our literature and movies is an attempt to get rid of repressed anger by expressing it, acting it out symbolically.”  (It makes her sick and scares her.)

Her writing is sharp, not quite as polished as her essays, but that’s the nature of the blog.  These are quick, pointed, interesting, and always astute. I

Shut up! or Don’t Shut up?

Didn’t we have a lot of hair?

A LOST PHOTO.  My husband recently returned from his parents’ house with several vintage photos of ourselves.  We have always been indifferent to photos, and don’t have many, but his parents documented our breif visits with rolls of film.  Here we are in our twenties at Niagara-on-the-Lake, hanging out with his family after our first year of teaching.  Isn’t he adorable? I was so tired:  my lips are weirdly puckered . “Maybe you were  tired of hanging out with my family,” he says.

Wasn’t my husband cute?   I was cute when I wasn’t puckering into the sun.

THE BLOG. I love reading.  I love writing my blog.  I don”t write reviews; I write up my notes and consider this my book journal. Even so, I occasionally offend writers. Writers don’t like criticism, and who can blame them?  I have written favorable reviews and made friends of writers.  I have written bad reviews and made enemies of writers. I have written good/bad reviews and made “frenemies” of writers. The best way not to offend writers?  Shut up!

I also like to rant about what I perceive to be problems in publishing.  I am  upset about dumbing down, whether it is the New York Times reviewing romances,  or Webster’s Dictionary defending the use of the non-word, “irregardless.” This kind of issue always gets to me.  Not long ago, after I read something that seemed particularly “dumb”at one of the dozens of publications I read, I wrote a brief letter to the editor.

And in today’s world, I got an email response from the editor.  Oh, no, I thought.  That wasn’t what I intended at all.  I didn’t want to write to THE editor; it was just “a letter to the editor.” Surely what I wrote couldn’t have been that upsetting?  Cranks write letters to the editor, and there was a slight indication they thought I was a crank. I wrote back what I hope was an appropriate response, praising the publication and repeating my criticism more mildly.

Dumbing down is a minor issue in today’s world.  There’s war, climate change, famine…  In retrospect, I really should NOT have written that letter to the editor.

Shut up? Don’t shut up?

Boundaries, Kat!  There are no boundaries on the internet.

And that’s why I prefer to read and write about dead writers!

The three “B’s”: How to Behave on a Trip to London

I learned three “B’s” on a recent trip to London:

  1. Be safe.
  2. Bring your own book.
  3. Don’t bother with ticketed museum exhibitions at peak times.

The first “B.”  At different ages, we view the concept of safety differently.  One night when I was a young woman, I went out and screamed at the noisy junkies in the alley behind our house.   May  I just say, Thank God they ignored me! I didn’t understand the situation. Still, you can find yourself in that situation again.

The hotel in London was seedy.  (The pictures lied.)   I arrived at midnight, too tired to find another hotel, and checked in with great trepidation.  I looked incredulous when the  desk clerk told me I had to go outside to another building.  He escorted me, but was obviously terrified of the people on the street:  a sensible reaction.  I wanted to say, “Don’t show fear!”  And I was sorry that he had to trek back by himself.

How unsafe was it?  I thought, well, it’s only for a few nights. But the next night someone climbed the stairs at midnight and pounded on the door.  I sat very still and hoped he’d go away. Eventually, he did.

The next day I schlepped my suitcase on the tube and went to a relatively “luxurious” hotel where I had stayed before.  I enjoyed the rest of my trip.

The Second “B.”  Bring your own book, or e-reader. When the weather is slushy and you tire of looking at portraits of the Tudors, go to the British Library and look at the manuscript of George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss. I was thrilled. Then sit down (if you can find a chair) and read it on your  e-reader.  (N.B.  The terrace in front of the British Library was cordoned off like a crime scene because of the snow.  Being an American, I thought this was funny.)

Though I brought my own books, I also went to bookstores  My two favorites are  the flagship Waterstones in Picadilly; and next door is Hatchards,  founded in 1797.

I finished five books in London, a record for me.  (The weather was bad, so I had lots of reading time!)  I read Rumer Godden’s Kingfishers Catch Fire (her best book), Virginia Woolf’s A Common Reader, Virginia Woolf’s The London Scene, Susan Hill’s Jacob’s Room Is on the Landing, and Annette Williams Jaffee’s Adult Education.

The Third “B.”  London has the best art museums.  But you know what? I often enjoy the free exhibits more than the ticketed ones.  That’s because the paid  exhibitions are crowded.  On a quiet weekday I enjoyed Julia Margaret Cameron’s portraits at the “Victorian Giants: The Birth of Art Photography” exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, but the Royal Academy of Arts was so crowded on a weekend that  I couldn’t get close enough to see the paintings in the  “Charles I:  King and Collector” exhibition.

What I learned?  Pick your times. Meanwhile, see many of the greatest paintings in the world for free.

A Forgotten Near-Classic: Jean Stafford’s The Catherine Wheel

Jean Stafford

Jean Stafford (1915-1979) , an American writer who won the Pulitzer in 1970 for her Collected Stories, wrote elegant, convoluted fiction  reminiscent of that of Henry James. Born in California, raised and educated in Colorado, the daughter of a writer of Westerns, she met the poet Robert Lowell at a Writers’ Conference, married him, and mingled with New York writers and editors.  (Many of her short stories were published in The New Yorker.)  Her work is bold and resonant:  A refined spinster in Maine reads Virgil’s Georgics aloud, translating as she goes along; an obese philosophy student in Heidelberg eats whole cakes, uses a sucker as a bookmark, and ominously talks about a dead thin twin, who, of course, turns out to be herself; and a young woman undergoes facial reconstruction in a hospital (as did Stafford after Lowell crashed their car into a wall while driving drunk).

Why is Stafford, the female James, as I call her, neglected? NYRB reissued The Mountain Lion a few years ago, but my favorite of her novels is The Catherine Wheel, published in 1951.   Brace yourself: the heroine of The Catherine Wheel is a well-bred spinster, with more than a  dash of Dickens’ Miss Havisham.  And Katharine has a secret:  she is having an affair with her cousin Maeve’s husband, John Shipley, the man she has loved since her teens. And all these years she has been furious that he preferred the insipidity of  Maeve to her brilliance.

Set during a summer in Maine, this superb book is lyrical and compelling: Katharine spends the summer at the family house in Hawthorne with Maeve’s three children, while Maeve and John travel in Europe. John, a mediocre architect, has assured Katharine that he will leave Maeve at the end of the summer, but Katharine has doubts.  And we learn about the doubts in the form of two intertwined narratives:  one from the perspective of Katharine, frightened of change; the other from that of Andrew, a prep school misfit who had looked forward to the summer playing with his best friend Victor, a village boy who has dropped him to nurse his older brother, Charles, a sailor who has returned to Hawthorne with a mysterious illness.  (I kept thinking gonorrhea, but it is probably typhoid.)

Are you ready for a Staffordian Jamesian passage?

Katharine had endeared herself to the halt and stooping citizenry because not only did she continue to return loyally each year but also intrepidly to withstand the inroads of what Mr. Barker, in spite of his worship of fast automobiles, called “these ultra-modern times.” The customs in Congreve House remained the same that they had been in her father’s day.  She had conceded to electricity, to modern plumbing and the telephone but to no ungainly fads like radios or vacuum cleaners, canned soups or boisterous evenings of The Game…  The servant hall was smaller, the tennis courts had given way to an herb garden, new objects had been introduced into the rooms, but nothing else had changed upon this lordly hill since her father, whom she had idolized, had died.

Katharine and Andrew are engulfed by hatred, fear, and near-madness:  Katharine has wasted years being in love with John and now has her chance; at the same time she realizes that he is not the brilliant man she thought he was when young, that he is having a midlife crisis, and that the affair could destroy his family.  Andrew has no idea about Katharine’s affair with his father, but he is obsessed with fantasizes about killing Charles to get his friend, Victor, back.  And he is terrified of the fantasies.  No one is aware of what is going on with Katharine or Andrew.

I admire this novel very much.  Are there flaws? Yes.  Perhaps the spinster sensibility of Katharine goes too far, though I only noticed this on a second reading.   I happen to like literary spinsters, so it didn’t bother me–much.  And Stafford is  a brilliant writer.

I enjoyed this hugely, though I prefer her short stories.

Reading Too Many Reviews

André Kertész, Carnival, Paris (woman reading behind stage), 1926

“I wish they would stop publishing reviews for a year.”

“What?”  When I got the New York Times on Sunday, I didn’t read the news; I read only the Book Review.  But it seemed my friend had the internet, while I only had AOL.  I did not admit it, but I had thought AOL was the internet.

“There’s so much there.  There’s too much there.”

And then in 2005 we finally got an internet connection. There is too much.   There are American review publications, British review publications,  Goodreads reviews and discussions, blogs, the Barnes and Noble Review, the Amazon Review, online publications like Literary Hub and Book Riot, and, if we’re really bored, BookTube… It just goes on, on, and on.  And now, like my friend, I feel overwhelmed by access to so many reviews.

And do you have trouble deciding what to read next? Do I want to read Alexanderplatz Berlin (I saw copies of it everywhere in London), finish Victoria Glendinning’s brilliant biography of Elizabeth Bowen, reread Flannery O’Connor, or dip into Rachel Kadish’s The Weight of Ink, which I read part of last summer.  I am probably not missing anything if I skip The Weight of Ink.  It got good reviews but the  truth is that not all books are for me.

And  I was dismayed to realize a few months ago that we have run out of space for books. Books literally have fallen out of a bookcase onto my head!


Is Snoopy’s bookcase made of particle board?

Angus Wilson’s Late Call

Bits of the cover chipped off as I read!

On  a recent trip to London, I  was in and out of used bookstores.  I am always intrigued by the many English books  not available in the U.S.  I  bought mainly paperbacks, so as to be able to fit them into my luggage, which eventually expanded to include a Waitrose shopping bag. “Ma’am, you’re going to have to keep that under the seat,” the flight attendant said.

One of my best finds was an old Penguin copy of Angus Wilson’s 1964 novel,  Late Call.  As far as I can tell, Late Call was never published in the U.S.  There may be a reason for this:  it is set in one of the New Towns in England, and do we know what a New Town is?  As is often the case, I kind of got it as I read.  But for the sake of efficiency, I will  quote Wikipedia: “The new towns in the United Kingdom were planned under the powers of the New Towns Act 1946 and later acts to relocate populations in poor or bombed-out housing following the Second World War.”

This strange novel is partly serious, partly satiric.   I very much liked it on the realistic level, as the  story of an old woman adjusting to retirement.  The heroine, Sylvia Calvert, a manageress of a hotel, retires in her early sixties because of high blood pressure (not to mention complaints about her husband, Arthur, who loses money at cards and borrows from the residents). Sylvia longs to start a new life, living with her son Harold and his children in Carshall New Town, but it proves to be a difficult adjustment:  in a matter of days she goes from being a respected woman in charge of a business to an old woman not even trusted with the housework.  Her son Harold, the insufferable headmaster of a secondary modern, insists on making a roster of household tasks for the whole family. (That seems very ’60s and early ’70s to me:  feminists  in collectives and co-ops always had housework schedules.)  And so Sylvia  would really like to do all the housework and cooking, but has little responsibility.  The only person who doesn’t have chores is Arthur, out playing cards all day.

Living with the obnoxious Harold is a nightmare.  He is condescending to Sylvia, and preaches endlessly about the superiority of the way of life in Carshall. He likes the rigid plan of the town, and is proud of his own modern house. The ultra-modern ugly kitchen, which he and his late wife Beth designed for efficiency, has so many electric gadgets that he must lecture and quiz Sylvia on them.  She doesn’t have the faintest idea what he is talking about.

Harold looked at her.  “You’re like Rip Van Winkle, Mother…. Now, we must concentrate on the job in hand.  What do you do with the autotimer?  Think now, Sylvia.”  He’d never used her Christian name; and although it was meant to be some kind of joke, she felt most uncomfortable.  However she must try to play up to him.  Some vague, long forgotten memory of school came back to her:  it spelt ‘catch.’  She would not be caught.

Sylvia wants to stay home and read and watch TV, but he thinks she should keep busy, so gets his friends to give her work as a volunteer secretary for a save-the-meadow campaign. (And the meadow is ugly! but Harold is obsessed with the preservation).  Sylvia is exhausted by the job, and then her pleasure in historical novels is ruined because her pseudo-employer mocks her for reading them. (And so Sylvia turns to the genre true crime.)

While Sylvia is trying to read, Harold becomes increasingly obsessed with the meadow, and his children fall apart with problems he doesn’t notice.  His son, Ray, a charming gay man, is terrified of being outed in Carshall (Sylvia doesn’t know anything about homosexuality, but she is completely on her grandson’s side).  Long-haired Mark is a CND supporter whose radical causes annoy Harold:  why can’t Mark just save the meadow?  And Judy, a snobbish teenager, spends most of her time with horse-owing “county” people, though she really wants Harold’s attention.

Sylvia loves her grandchildren, but this modern family is not enough for her. And so she begins a series of long walks.  It very hard to get out of Carshall:  all the trails are carefully designed to lead back there.  And so freedom for Syliva is about escaping from the New Town.   She finds the one trail that leads to the country, and a friendship with outsiders, a farmer’s American wife and her daughter,  help her get her identity back.  But while Sylvia is enjoying herself, the whole family is falling apart.

Wilson’s satire of Harold is so effective that I was surprised and disappointed to be told at the end that he is having a breakdown.  Breakdown or no, he is odious, as are most of his friends in town. Wilson doesn’t make him more likable, but we are supposed to see him as a more realistic character, I suppose.   But I really felt that Harold was characteristic of the New Town, and now I have to like him?  Isn’t this a satire of the New Town?  I need an introduction in an American edtiion.

Wilson’s style is lively and satiric, and the book is very entertaining!  I raced through this. And yet I needed one or two notes…

Margaret Drabble wrote a biography of Wilson, and I would love to read it.   A few years ago I read and very much enjoyed Wilson’s novel, The Middle Age of Eliot.  I wrote here, “This fast-paced, intelligent novel, published in 1958 and winner of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, is often elegantly-written, and misses being a classic by a hair.”  Anglo-Saxon Attitudes is also in print, published by NYRB.  Any recommendations of other books by Wilson?

Elizabeth Bowen’s The Heat of the Day

“You might like Elizabeth Bowen,” said a classics professor during a chat about, of all things, the pros and cons of the style of Virginia Woolf.  I had correctly identified a passage by Virginia Woolf, as well as the authors of several other long excerpts from famous books, on a mystifying diagnostic test which had little to do with our subject.  Woolf was then my favorite English writer; he preferred Bowen, who was influenced by Woolf.  Now he is dead, and I prefer Bowen.  The cycle of life…

I recently reread The Heat of the Day, Elizabeth Bowen’s spy novel.  The narrative is oblique and elaborate, and I love her lyrical style, and what the biographer Victoria Glendinning calls her “contortionist manner of sentence construction.”  Glendinning says that Bowen had a difficult time writing this book:  she wrote the first five chapters in 1944, and then rewrote them in 1945 because her reality had changed.  Glendinning writes, “It was thus the very subject of The Heat of the Day–the war–that held up the writing of it; and she did not get around to finishing it until the war was over.”

In this convoluted novel, set during World War II, the middle-aged heroine Stella lives alone in London in a furnished flat while her son Roderick is in the army.  She knows three languages and two or three countries and is “employed in an organization better known as Y.X.D., in secret, exacting, not unimportant work.”  She is approached by Harrison, an English spy who reminds me of Uriah Heep.  He has tried to become her boyfriend: she has rejected him.  She has a lover, Robert.   When Harrison insists on seeing her one last time, he attempts to blackmail her:  he says he has spied on Robert, and claims that Robert is a spy for the enemy.  Harrison says he will not turn him in immediately if she  drops Robert and becomes Harrison’s lover.    Could any situation be more morally repugnant?

Stella doesn’t know if any of it is true:  is Harrison a spy? Could Robert, who  works at the War Office,  be a spy?  She defends Robert, and sends Harrison away.  She says nothing to Robert, but she becomes nervous and vigilant. What is real?

The narrative is very much a hall of mirrors.  In the beginning of the novel, we see Harrison through the eyes of a young working-class woman who approaches him at an outdoor concert.  She has liked his unconsciousness of everything around him, but her impression changes when he looks at her:  “–one of his eyes either was or behaved as being just perceptively higher than the other.  This lag or inequality of his vision gave her the feeling of being looked at twice–being viewed then checked over again in the same moment.”

And in a scene when we see Stella waiting for Harrison, we also see the obliquity and eeriness of angles.

Propped on the chimney-piece above the built-in electric fire were two photographs, not framed yet–the younger of the two men was Roderick, Stella’s twenty-two-year-old son.  Over the photographs hung a mirror–into which, on hearing Harrison’s footsteps, she looked; not at herself but with the idea of studying, at just one more remove from reality, the door of this room opening behind her, as it must be.  But no, not yet:  he was still knocking into something, putting down his hat in the tiny hall.  This gave her a moment to reconsider–she swung around again, after all, to face him–stood stock still, arms folded, fingers spread over the sleeves of her dark dress.  There came to be something dynamic, as he entered, about her refusal to move at all.

Although it is occasionally melodramatic, I admire this tense, carefully-plotted novel about love and betrayal.  Is it her best?  It is not my favorite.  But she raises complex issues, and the twists and turns are surprising.  The  situation is heartbreaking.  And shouldn’t Hitchcock have made a film of it?

I thought I might have written about other of Bowen’s books at this blog, but I haven’t.  I shall try to do so.  She is a great writer–perhaps out of style these days?