Confessions of a Book Award Junkie

There is always controversy over book awards.  Recently 30 publishers in the UK signed a letter to the organizers of the Man Booker Prize asking that the decision to include Americans  be overturned.  I’m neutral, though we do have plenty of American awards already.

So what better time to post “Confessions of a Book Award Junkie,” an essay I wrote in the 1990s?  Enjoy!


Those of us who grew up in the ’60s watching beauty pageants and the Oscars suspected early on that awards were arbitrary—a conjecture that never spoiled our enjoyment of the spectacle. My mother and I loved these shows. We huddled on the davenport and picked our favorites. Our criteria were self-evident and sound: Miss Alaska on the basis of cuteness! Julie Christie because of her British accent! The Sound of Music because we’d actually seen it! If the judges didn’t agree with our choices–and our odds were roughly as good as picking a winning horse in the trifecta–the evening was shot.

These days I lack interest in pageantry, and Hollywood glamour makes me cranky (the hair, the gowns, the shoes, the tearful speeches–where are the jeans-and-sweater types?).

No, my interest in awards is bookish. I confess, I am a book award junkie. I secretly wonder, Why can’t the National Book Awards and the Booker Prize do it up like the Oscars? Although I find book awards both silly and exciting (how can judges narrow the field to a single best?), I am enthralled each fall by the announcements of the winners. Even though I may not agree with the selections and sometimes dismiss them as politically motivated, it’s a good way to learn about the contenders on the literary scene. It is safe to give these books as Christmas gifts, because people are vaguely awed by awards, though many prize winners prove bloated disappointments, fated to be sold or traded at used bookstores.

In case you’re not an insider, the National Book Awards, sponsored by he National Book Foundation and selected by writer-judges for a single term, honor American works of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and young people’s literature. There is often grumbling about the choices, and this year (1996) was no exception, as reported in a recent New York Times article. Barbara Grossman, a senior vice president and publisher at Viking Penguin, commented, “Do you think the judges take a perverse pleasure in picking authors that no one has ever heard of?” And Jonathan Galassi, editor in chief of Farrar Strauss & Giroux, called the list of finalists “almost willfully fugitive.”

I admit, the choices are a bit strange. The fiction award went to Andrea Barrett’s workmanlike but uninspiring Ship Fever and Other Stories, a collection of short stories about scientists, several set in the 19th century, reminiscent of A. S. Byatt’s Angels and Insects, though without the brilliance and passion. In short, I was often bored. The other choices were also a bit obscure. For your Christmas shopping convenience, you may want to know them, though: they are Elizabeth McCracken’s overrated first novel, The Giant’s House, Ron Hansen’s Atticus, Steven Millhauser’s Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer, and Janet Peery’s The River Beyond the World. I was more impressed by this year’s non-fiction winner, James Carroll’s An American Requiem: God, My Father, and the War That Came Between Us. This memoir about Carroll’s complicated relationship with is father is powerful, despite his dense style and tendency to pontificate. Carroll, a novelist, former priest, and the son of Lieutenant General Joseph F. Carroll, who directed the Defense Intelligence Agency during the Vietnam War, documents his struggles to assert his own identity as a priest and anti-war activist during political and philosophical clashes with his father. Did I love this book? No. Would I recommend it? Yes.

There are some award-winning books this years that I whole-heartedly recommend. The Booker Prize, Britain’s most prestigious literary prize, is a more reliable guide in terms of consistent quality and readability, perhaps because its field of contenders comprises English, Scottish, Irish, Canadian, Australian, South African, and the entire Commonwealth. In the 1990s, two of the more breathtaking winners have been Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient and A. S. Byatt’s Possession. The 1996 Booker nominees are also stunners. The prize was awarded to Graham Swift’s Last Orders, a moving novel about four friends who come together after a friend’s death to scatter his ashes at the seaside. These working-class men, the central narrator being Ray, a good-humored man who frequents the racetrack, have complicated relationships with one another and their late friend. Their relationships are explored through flashbacks, tricky shifts of viewpoint, and Ray’s account of their trip to the seaside, marked by frequent stops and quarrels. This would make a wonderful Christmas gift.

Some of the runners-up, however, are easier reads. Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace is a historical novel, impressively researched and beautifully-written. It tells the story of Grace Mark, a Canadian convicted of murder in 1843 at the age of 16, and her relationship with Dr. Jordan, a young psychoanalyst who arrives at the prison in in 1851 to extract the details of the crime. Atwood, whose range is breathtaking, doesn’t let you down, though I prefer her novels about contemporary women. Be on the lookout for her twists and turns of thought and language.

I also enjoyed Sheila Mackay’s The Orchard on Fire, a novel set mainly in Kent, England, during the narrator’s ’50’ s childhood. Eight-year-old April and her best friend, the daughter of an abusive pub owner, have sometimes happy, more often puzzling encounters with other adults. And their observations of the world around them are often comical and always perceptive. And here my recommendations stop. Although I am eager to read the remaining nominees, I did not receive from the publishers my copies of the two available in the U.S. in time to read them for this article. They are: Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance, Beryl Bainbridge’s Every Man for Himself, and Seamus Deane’s Reading in the Dark.

So that’s the news on the award front, and I hope you can find the books!

The Things We Carried from Classics

Now that we’re older and smarter, wouldn’t it be fun to go back to graduate school?

Well, perhaps it would be fun to audit classes.

I had two careers as a graduate student. First, I earned a master’s in classics.  Later, I took graduate classes in English.  I loved classics, but English was more fun.

English wasn’t “real” graduate school for me.  I enjoyed my English classes thoroughly, and felt no pressure:  I took them while I was looking for a full-time  job. During my Marvell phase, I  dashed off papers on “Ovidian Influences in Marvell’s ‘The Garden,’ ‘Hortus,’ and ‘The Nymph Complaining for the Death of Her Fawn.’ ”  I compared Marvell’s “On a Drip of Dew” to “Ros,” his Latin version of the same poem.   (Marvell was an accomplished classicist.) When I dropped off my papers, the professor was enthusiastic and said (s)he looked forward all day to my papers. At first I thought (s)he was mocking me–there is a  very high sarcasm rate among classicists–but no, she was pleased to meet  a Latinist.  And the atmosphere was very different from classics–less uptight?

Back in print.

Classics was a much more arduous affair, requiring more commitment.  Over infinite cups of Oolong, with my charming cat batting at my pen and dipping her paw into yogurt, I  spent hours translating Cicero’s Somnium Scipionis (The Dream of Scipio), Horace’s odes (Nunc est bibendum), and Aristophanes’s The Frogs (Brekekekex koax koax).  Sometimes I had to work from grimy photocopied pages.  Our professor distributed Xeroxed copies of an out-of-print edition of  The Frogs.   An entire Survey of Greek literature class was taught off Xeroxes. Whether it violated copyright law, who cared?

Naturally, being a student was not just about books.  I  loved Bloomington:  it was like my hometown, only prettier. My boyfriend drove me to Bloomington, and we lugged my very few boxes up two flights of stairs into a one-room apartment above Howard’s Bookstore.  I settled in with my cat, dictionaries, grammars, novels, and Rolling Stones albums, and missed my boyfriend when he left.  (Could I have listened to “Miss You” more often?) Between bouts of homework, I went to Howard’s, the Runcible Spoon (a coffeehouse), and Caveat Emptor (a used bookstore).  Walking down Kirkwood towards campus, I was almost bowled over by roller skaters.   There was a kiosk where people rented roller skates.

Everybody in classics knew everybody: it was a small department.  The grad students were a genial group, but two of my friends dropped out the first year.  I was indignant that we lost them.  The culture of graduate school can be grueling:  the work load is ridiculously heavy, and you have to prioritize.  I read all the Greek and Latin literature, but was willing to gamble on skipping that learned  article on  Greek and Sanskrit  in the American Journal of Philology. And if you couldn’t skip a few steps, you’d have a nervous breakdown.  On the other hand, perhaps my friends dropped out because they didn’t like the bullshit.

Fortunately, there were some friendly survivors.  A charming Englishman was always up for a party, though I regret to say he didn’t carry a teddy bear like Sebastian in Brideshead Revisited.  A Uriah Heepish character  always lit the department chair’s cigarettes and pulled out chairs for women but then inexplicably failed the Ph.D. Latin exam.   The brightest student by far was a lovely, well-dressed, unpretentious linguist who shared my love of Masterpiece Theater and lent me her copy of Dorothy Sayers’ Peter Wimsey stories.

My boyfriend finally moved in with me.  Thank God!  Here is a description of young love:  we spent hours at the library, doing homework in a glassed-in smoking room, really a kind of porch.  We sat there mainly because there were no windows above the second floor, and the  carrels made me claustrophobic.  Things smelled different in those days:  we didn’t smoke, but everybody was used to smoke.  There were smells of smoke, beer, hamburgers everywhere.

How on earth did we live off our $2,900 stipends?  We got that and free tuition.  Well, we had very few expenses:  just housing and food.  No work wardrobe, you could walk or bicycle everywhere, and many cultural events were free.  When we found our first real jobs in a city, we seemed paradoxically to have less money.  For several years we struggled financially.

I took the literature, not the stress, from the grad school experience, and honestly, a master’s degree helps in the workplace.   But what a system!  Perhaps it is has been reformed; I don’t know anybody in that world now.

Our Winter of the Aeneid: The Trojan Diaspora & the Trojan Women Rebel in Books 3 & 5

Aeneas, Polydorus, and Leaving Crete

Yes, I’m late with our Aeneid readalong post this week!

People have written notes to say they’re behind in the reading, so I kicked back this week.  Today I’m writing about Books 3 and 5 together, because they are the neglected books of the Odyssean first half of  the Aeneid.

The language is less rich in Book 3, but the plot is fast-paced and spellbinding, and Virgil heightens our emotions by his descriptions of the Trojan diaspora.  I found myself grieving and increasingly distressed as Aeneas and his people attempted to find a new home in foreign countries, only to be routed again and again.

In Thrace Aeneas prepares to sacrifice to the gods–ironiically pious–when dark blood drips from a tree as he tries to cut greenery for a roof for an altar.  Virgil says,  horrendum et dictu video mirablile monstrum  (and horrendous to say I see a fearful monster [omen] ).

Virgil continues:

nam quae prima solo ruptis radicibus arbos
vellitur, huic atro liquuntur sanguine guttae
et terram tabo maculant.

“When the first stalk came torn/out of the earth, and the root network burst/Dark blood dripped down to soak and foul the soil.”  (Fitzgerald translation, p. 66)

It is Polydorus, a Trojan betrayed and killed by a king who took gold then buried Polydorus under a hedge of spears which took root.  Obviously the omen is bad and the Trojans cannot remain.

The C. Day Lewis translation

After holding a funeral for Polydorus, they sail to Delos and consult the oracle.  Aeneas, still unwilling to assume leadership, refers the portent to his father Anchises.  They must go their ancestors came.  Anchises says they should go to Crete (but they are fated to go to Italy).   So in Crete they begin to build a city, Pergamum (Little Troy), and are content and secure when the plague strikes.

It’s too much.  I kept picturing them fleeing from the smoke and fire of Troy, losing people in the flames, Aeneas losing his wife Creusa, having to build a fleet, then not knowing where to go, and there were so few of them that they did not dare go to populated areas where there might be war, and then to have to leave Thrace and Crete…

Their wanderings in Book III continue, and Anchises dies in Sicily.  Then in Book V, after leaving Dido in Carthage, they return to Sicily (the gods send the ships in that direction), where their friend Acestes (a Trojan) welcomes them.  It is a year since Anchises died, and Aeneas celebrates with games.

But while the men are participating in ship races, foot races, and archery contests, the Trojan women rebel, stirred up by Juno, who sends Iris to persuade them to burn the fleet. (Juno later also agitates the women in Italy , through Amata, the mother of the Italian woman whom Aeneas is fated to marry.)

Iris flies down from heaven and appears as Beroe, an old woman of noble birth.  She makes a long speech, and says to them (my rough and fast literal translation of part of it, so I don’t have to copy another translation):

“O wretched women, whom the Achaeans did not drag to death under the walls of our country! O unhappy people, for what death is Fortune keeping you?  Already it is the seventh year after the destruction of Troy, having traversed waters, lands, wild rocks and stars (weather) through the great sea  in the pursuit of  Italy, fleeing:  we  have been rolled (tumbled)  in the waves.  Here is the country of Eryx, Aeneas’ half-brother, and the host Acestes.  Who keeps us from building walls and giving our citizens a city?”

And Virgil seems slightly sympathetic,  as I am, though I know it’s the wrong side.  Yes, Aeneas is fated to go to Italy–and fight another war–and the women, incited by Iris, don’t want to go.  They wildly decide to burn the ships :   it makes no sense to keep sailing.   They are working against Aeneas’s heroic morale-building games.  Peace.  Home.

Aeneas and his men save the ships.  But staying is not a foolish idea.   Aeneas learns from Anchises’ ghost that it would be best to allow some to stay and go on with those who want to travel.

So Virgil has some sympathy for the women.  Aeneas leaves with a smaller number of mainly young men who want to fight.

Oh, poor, poor Aeneas.  But everything will become clear in Book VI when he meets his father in the underworld.

Writers, Backscratchers, and Truth Tellers

“Woman writing,” Edouard Monet

“Oh my God, I’d forgotten I ever knew X,” I said the other day when I was sorting through old letters.   X was a brilliant, little-known writer who encouraged his/her writing students.

I laughed when I read the letter, not because it was comical, but because it reminded me of the years when people said what they thought. I had sent X my review of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, but (s)he did not like Morrison’s work, which (s)he thought was influenced by Garcia Marquez, whose work (s)he thought overwritten.

X also asked if I’d seen a  letter to The New York Times about Morrison. Forty-eight black writers and critics had signed a letter saying it was disgraceful that Toni Morrison had not won a National Book Award or the Pulitzer Prize, which they said was  due to “oversight and harmful whimsy.”

X was impatient with such protests. (S)he wrote, “Too bad she didn’t think to head those backscratchers off.  Don’t they know, firstly, that awards kill; secondly, they don’t mean a damned thing; thirdly, it’s reverse racism; fourthly, she’s gotten plenty of awards, so what are they talking about?”

Trust me, X was not racist. (S)he liked only European writers!  American contemporary fiction did not interest him/her.

Reading X’s letter, which was perfectly acceptable in the context of knowing X,  a hyper-critical reader known for honesty, made me realize that (s)he could not express such opinions today.  (S)he  would  (a) be driven out of the Twittersphere, or whatever it is; (b)  be suspended from or lose his/her  job;  (c) have his/her work and legacy wiped out; and (d) have to apologize on Twitter after all that.

May I say that I love the writing of both Toni Morrison and X?   I once flew to Bloomington to hear Morrison speak!  And I think I’ll reread Beloved this weekend.

In every age there are backscratchers–it is how people get ahead–but there are also people who are honest at the wrong time.   And this is the wrong time!

Thank God we have our writers.  But you know we’re in trouble when everybody raves about the TV show The Handmaid’s Tale but then hisses Margaret Atwood on Twitter for talking about “due process.”  And so they prefer TV to writing?

I think I shall spend the weekend reading Morrison, X., and Atwood.   I need to get back to words that matter.  Words that make sense.

A Catch-Up Post: Mary Gordon, Pamela Hansford Johnson, and Marguerite Duras

Although this is a book blog, I do not write about every book I read.  Why not?  Well, it is my book journal.  Sometimes I transcribe notes from my handwritten diary, other times I prefer to muse on bookish topics like reading habits or unlikable characters.

But what happens when you have skipped critiques of so many books you have no option but to go back and look at your notes?  It is my obligation, isn’t it, to introduce you to the best books I’m reading?

And so this is a hasty catch-up post on three books I’ve meant to review.

1  Mary Gordon’s stunning novel, There Your Heart Lies, published in 2017, is my favorite book by this award-winning Catholic writer.  I was so moved by it that I didn’t want to blog about it. You read it, you love it, you think about it–but it spoils the mood to explain.  I scrawled in my notebook:  A gorgeous novel, really a double narrative, set partly during the Spanish Civil War, partly in Rhode Island in 2009.  After Marian’s gay brother commits suicide in the 1930s, she rejects her wealthy family and marries her brother’s lover to accompany him to Spain. Gordon alternates chapters about Marian’s life in Spain in the ’30s and ’40s with Marian’s retelling of  the story to her granddaughter when she is in her eighties.   Often Marian repeats in conversation the same words Gordon used in the third-person narrative.  It is surprisingly effective.

Pamela Hansford Johnson’s Cork Street, Next to the Hatter’s (1965).  Johnson’s satire of the writing life in the 1960s is hilarious.  The pretentious poet-playwright Dorothy Merlin is writing an “Anti-Verse play”; Pringle Milton has published her first novel but gets sidetracked posing for an artist’s photo for a milk ad;  Tom Hariot is determined to write a play so obscene that it can’t be produced (this proves impossible); and Dorothy’s  husband Cosmo reluctantly hosts a poetry reading at his bookstore.

Cork Street is the third in the Dorothy Merlin trilogy, three books loosely connected by the appearance of Dorothy and her friends. When I say these satires can be read as standalones, I mean it.  The plot elements don’t overlap.  Why didn’t I write about Cork Street before?  It is so witty that I wanted to give the book to everyone for Christmas so I wouldn’t have to write about it–but it’s out of print. And so I have to write about it.

And here is why Cosmo Hines is my favorite bookstore owner in literature:

Though it was commonly believed that Cosmo never opened a book, this was untrue. He was a passionate writer with positive tastes who could easily get through a dozen advance copies in a week; but what he liked best was novels about mad people, and through sheer personal enthusiasm had managed to sell thirty copies of one of these the previous Christmas. He also enjoyed books about drug addiction, but kept this to himself, since he had a clientele wholly uninterested in the subject.

Marguerite Duras’s Wartime Notebooks (1943-1949).  These four small notebooks, written during the war, contain rough drafts of  stories and several alternate versions  of her novel The Lover.   The war stories are brutally effective: a woman tortures a collaborator (all the women leave the room in disgust, as would I have), and there is a powerful autobiographical account of waiting for her husband to be released from a concentration camp, and how she and a friend managed to save his life–he was a living corpse, unable to eat.  Later, when he is healthy at the beach, she laughs over the mriacle of his recovery.  This jumble of material is, I think,  more suited to someone who knows Duras’s work.  It is important work, but shouldn’t one first know the primary literarature?  And that’s why I put off writing about it.  It’s really not for me.


An Hour’s Uninterrupted Reading: Emily Bronte and Willa Cather

Social media can be draining. I am so  tired of celebrities’ tweets, which newspapers now reprint to entice readers.  These social media platforms promote racism, sexism, fake news, blacklisting, and misinformation.  Enough!

Fortunately, an  hour’s uninterrupted reading of a book puts me back together again. This year I am reading novels, biographies, and letters to prepare for two significant literary anniversaries:  the bicentenary of Emily Bronte’s birth (July 30), and the 100th anniversary of the publication of Cather’s My Antonia (Sept. 21).

I love Emily and Willa.  In my mind I’m already roaming Emily Bronte’s moors and Willa Cather’s prairie.  Whom do I prefer?  I can’t decide.  I’ve been consistent since age 12  about loving the Brontes:  my favorite book used to be Emily’s Wuthering Heights; now it’s Charlotte’s Villette.   And I fell in love with Willa’s books when I was living in a cold, tiny, rented room my senior year of college.  Her novels about the Midwest, written in the early twentieth century,  perfectly captured what I was feeling that very cold winter.

Do you like literary museums?  This would be a good year to visit them. There’s something about old houses, and looking at writers’ possessions.   I’ve seen Willa Cather’s desk, Bess Streeter Aldrich’s desk (and her buffalo robe!), Louisa May Alcott’s desk, Dickens’ standing desk…  But not the Brontes’ desks!

Is it time for me to go to Haworth?  That’s a long way away.   Patti Smith has been to Haworth.  In her introduction to the  Folio Society edition of Wuthering Heights, she writes, “In West Yorkshire, in the village of Haworth, behind the village church, stands the Bronte Parsonage Museum.  Passing through the rooms, one may view the humble yet precious possessions of the Bronte family.”  I do want to see the humble possessions.  But at the same time I don’t like crowds, and I imagine that Haworth would be as crowded as Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House.  Have you been to Haworth?  Did you like it?

I do love Nebraska, and that’s closer.  If you haven’t toured Red Cloud, Nebraska, where Willa grew up, I must tell you the Willa Cather Foundation gives the best literary tour I’ve taken, and I have taken many.  You can visit Willa’s home, the Red Cloud Opera House, the new Willa Cather Center, walk the Willa Cather Prairie, and so much more. The guides know everything about Willa. They know the background for all her books.   And this year they’re planning many My Antonia events, and are promoting a new 100th Year Anniversary edition of My Antonia with an introduction by Jane Smiley and the original illustrations by W. T. Benda.  (It will be published in March.)

And now I must get back to reading Emily and Willa.  I’m especially drawn to Willa, because it’s very, very cold out.

One of the original illustrations by W. T. Benda for My Antonia

The Unreal and the Real: Selected Stories of Ursula K. Le Guin

“We will need writers who can remember freedom.”
—Ursula K. Le Guin’s 2014 speech at the National Book Awards

Ursula K. Le Guin

I wrote here a few years ago that Ursula K. Le Guin should have won the Nobel Prize.

In her honor, I am reprinting my post about The Unreal and The Real:  Selected Stories of Ursula K. Le Guin.  This two-volume collection was published in 2012 by Small Beer Press and reissued in 2016 by Saga Press.

Ursula K. Le Guin was the first science fiction/fantasy writer I read as an adult.  Growing up, I read E. Nesbit’s books, Jonathan Key’s The Forgotten Door, and A Wrinkle in Time over and over, but then I gave up genre fiction. Later, in my twenties, a friend recommended  Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, and I was amazed to discover parallels between her work and literary writers like Borges and Calvino.  Several of her novels and story collections are also reminiscent of Doris Lessing’s, or vice versa.

For those of you who don’t know her work, I would put her in line for the Nobel Prize for Literature, except that it seems no American writer will ever win the Nobel again.

Small Beer Press recently published two volumes of Le Guin’s stories, and I was eager to read them.  I read the second volume first, because it is a collection of her science fiction and fantasy stories, selected by Le Guin herself, while the first volume, Where on Earth, spotlights her more “realistic” fiction.  (And perhaps I’m not quite as interested in that.)

Le Guin writes in the introduction of Vol. 2:  Outer Space, Inner Lands about the blurring of boundaries between genre fiction and literature.  She writes about the  relationship between myth, legend, science fiction, fantasy, and magic realism.

She says of genre:

“Genre, a concept which could have served as a useful distinction of various kinds of fiction, has been degraded into a disguise for more value-judgment.  The various “genres” are now mainly commercial product-labels to make life easy for lazy readers, lazy critics, and the Sales Departments of publishers.”

“It’s not my job as a writer to make life easy for anybody.  Including myself.”

Many of Le Guin’s powerful books could be cross-listed as SF/fantasy and literature, but, with the exception of Lavinia, her historical novel about he Italian princess who marries Aeneas (in The Aeneid), I have found all of them in the SF section.  Booksellers shelf Doris Lessing’s science fiction in the literature section, because she began as a literary writer, but Le Guin, best known as an SF writer, and remarkably fluent,  doesn’t get the same courtesy.


There are many different kinds of stories in Outer Space, Inner Lands. Some of them take the form of ethnological reports on other planets.  In “Solitude,” an ethnologist and her two children, Borno and Serenity, spend several years on Eleven-Soro.  Narrated many years later by the ethnologist’s daughter Serenity in the form of a report, the story melds Serenity’s happy memories of her own coming of age with her mother’s sadness and isolation.  Serenity, who was a young child when they moved there, was accepted by the inhabitants of the “aunt-ring,”  learned the songs and stories the women told, and had an opportunity to “make her soul.”  Her mother was not allowed to attend their singing/storytelling sessions.

Serenity learned above all to avoid magic, tekell, “an art or power that violates natural law”:  the technology on her home planet, or even just one person trying to dominate another.   Her mother calls this superstition, but to Serenity it is common sense: even in marriage, there is tekell, because one person can control the other.   “You have no power over me,” she says to her mother when they want to take her back to their home planet.

The family cannot stay together on the planet.  Borno must leave with the other boys in adolescence to live away from women and jostle for power.   He sticks out the violent life for one year, then comes home and tells his mother he wants to go back to their planet.  Serenity’s dilemma is that she loves her family but utterly believes in the society she has been brought up in.

In another thoughful,  gripping story, “Nine Lives,” two men, Pugh and Martin, have been alone on Libra Exploratory Mission Base for years.  Their first glimpse of a member of an incoming support team on a video communicator floors them:  “Do they all look like that?  Martin, you and I are uglier than I thought.”

Le Guin writes about the difficulty of meeting strangers.  It is particularly tough for Martin and Pugh, alone for so many years.

“It is hard to meet a stranger.  Even the greatest extravert meeting even the greatest stranger knows a certain dread, though he may not know he knows it.  Will he make a fool of me wreck my image of myself invade me destroy me change me?  Yes, that he will.  There’s the terrible thing:  the strangeness of the stranger.”

But it is even more disturbing when  a support team emerges from the ship, and they are shocked to see  five men and five women clones–a tenclone. Later, nine of the clones die in a horrible earthquake, and the tenth, who almost dies, is in deep shock. He gradually learns from Martin and Pugh that doing the safe thing is not always the wise thing.  Breaking the rules can help one survive.

In my favorite story, “Betrayals,” an elderly woman has retired to a hut outside a remote village to meditate and learn to die.  She reads about a planet where there is always peace,  takes care of a dog and cat, and allows a Romeo-and-Juliet-type couple to take refuge in her house occasionally for love. But then she discovers that her neighbor, the Chief, a former tyrannical revolutionary leader who served time in prison, is ill with a cough that develops into pneumonia.  She doesn’t want to help him–she doesn’t care for him–he is there to die–but a lifetime of habit makes it necessary to do all she can.  She learns about the versatility of human beings, and that neither she, nor the chief are ready to die.

A remarkable collection.  My favorite of her books is The Birthday of the World and Other Stories (2002).  What are your favorites?