Books of the Month Odds and Ends

Ursula Le Guin and the Wizard of Earthsea

When I heard of Ursula Le Guin’s death last year I decided to reread her stories. I picked up an omnibus edition Earthsea, the first four books in this series ~ A wizard of Earthsea (1969), The tombs of Atuan (1971), The farthest shore (1972) and Tehanu (1990). Unfortunately it doesn’t include the last in the series The other wind (2001). That is definitely my next read.

Each novel continues the story of Ged, who starts out as a young and impulsive wizard in the first, matures into the wise archmage of Earthsea and then becomes the complex, broken man in Tehanu. But it is only the first book that is told through the voice of Ged. Each book, while still carrying on the story, is separate. Lord of the rings is ostensibly three books, but is really one, each book leading on immediately from the previous ending. Le Guin doesn’t do that. Indeed there is about twenty years from where we left Ged and Tenar at the end of The tombs of Atuan before Ged’s story is picked up again in The farthest shore.

Tehanu, the fourth book, was written nearly twenty years after the third. The characters have had time to develop in complexity. For authors it must be a luxury to have time to sit with characters and allow them to grow over time. I guess it’s a luxury that modern  authors, who seem to be expected to publish a book a year, don’t have. Knowing that the books are written over a span of time helps to understand the strengthening of the themes, and the writing.

One of those themes is the place of women in society. There are very few women in A wizard of Earthsea. It’s in The tombs of Atuan that we meet Tenar, a strong, independent young woman. She is the central character again in Tehanu and Le Guin has kept Tenar’s strength and independence but developed her into a woman is prepared to question established norms and fight passionately for those she loves.

Throughout Tehanu Tenar is trying to resolve the notion of power. Where does women’s power come from and why does it come from a different place to men’s? Why is it seen to be a weaker power? In a discussion with Ged she says:

“If power were trust,” she said. “I like that word. If it weren’t all those arrangements — one above the other — kings and masters and mages and owners — It all seems so unnecessary. Real power, real freedom, would lie in trust, not force.”

Le Guin shows us that masculine power as an overt force with the rape and horrific abuse of the child in the story, as well as with a wizard who takes away all Tenar’s power ~ of speech, of action and even of thought ~ because she is a woman. Le Guin also shows us the casual sexism that we know so well. Tenar’s son refuses to put his dishes in the sink because it is ‘women’s work’; other characters take no notice of what she is saying.

In her obituary to Ursula Le Guin Margaret Atwood identifies other themes, which also come through strongly in this series.

In all her work, Le Guin was always asking the same urgent question: what sort of world do you want to live in? Her own choice would have been gender equal, racially equal, economically fair and self-governing, but that was not on offer. It would also have contained mutually enjoyable sex and good food: there was a better chance of that…….

The Earthsea trilogy, for instance, is a memorable exploration of the relationship between life and death: without the darkness, no light; and mortality allows all that is alive to be. The darkness includes the hidden and less pleasant sides of our selves – our fears, our pride, our envy. Ged, its hero, must face his shadow self before it devours him. Only then will he become whole. In the process, he must contend with the wisdom of dragons: ambiguous and not our wisdom, but wisdom nonetheless.

As you can tell, I loved Tehanu the best of the four, and am so looking forward to reading The other wind, (as well as her non-Earthsea works, especially The dispossessed and The left hand of darkness) not only to finish off the stories of these strong, interesting characters but to enjoy Le Guin’s beautiful writing. Oh, and there are dragons too!

(Tenar) had done right to make the dress, and she had spoken the truth. But it was not enough, the right and the truth. There was a gap, a void, a gulf, on beyond the right and truth. Love, her love for Therru and Therru’s for her, made a bridge across that gap, a bridge of spider web, but love did not fill it or close it. Nothing did that. And the child knew it better than she.

And again…

Because Lark didn’t see Hawk (Ged) through the words herdsman, hired hand, widow’s man, but looked at him himself, she saw a good deal that puzzled her. His dignity and simplicity were not greater than that of other men she had known, but were a little different in quality; there was a size to him, she thought, not height or girth, certainly, but soul and mind.

And don’t we need a size in soul and mind in all of us now?

Books of the Month

2 fatties and a thin — May Books

I have been reading two thick books recently. I began reading Ash, which is 1113 pages with small type. Then I had to put it aside while I read the Book Club book, The Luminaries, which is merely 832 pages! Persepolis: The story of a childhood was light in weight, but certainly not in subject matter.

Persepolis: The story of a childhood — Marjane Satrapi

Marjane Satrapi was a 10 year old school girl in 1980, the year the Fundamentalists tightened their grip on Iranian society. She came from a left-wing family who had been involved in opposition to both the regimes of the Shah and the Fundamentalists. She tells of her uncle Anoosh, who escaped imprisonment by the Shah’s secret police by fleeing to Moscow. He returned after the revolution but was soon arrested and executed for being a Russian spy.

 Satrapi cleverly shows us not only the big events in Iranian/Persian history, and how people fought against persecution, but she also shows us how Fundamentalism impacted on daily life, especially her life as a teenager. Her parents had to smuggle Iron Maiden and Kim Wilde posters in from Turkey. She is accosted in the street by the Guardians of the Revolution for wearing Nike runners and jeans. She writes: “And the Committee they didn’t have to inform my parents. They could detain me for hours or for days. I could be whipped. In short, anything could happen to me. It was time for action.” That action was to make up a horror story about her home life and burst into tears. Music and parties were forbidden, with harsh penalties for those found with decks of cards, records or cassettes.

What makes this an even more interesting read is that it is a graphic novel. I was impressed that Satrapi is able to convey complex concepts in this limiting format. For example after the Shah had been toppled and before the Fundamentalists took power the young Marjane finds out that Ramin’s father was in the Secret Police and had “killed a million people”. Outraged Marjane leads some of her friends to find Ramin to beat him up. Fortunately her mother intervenes and explains that Ramin is not his father. Justice is not for them to dispense. When Marjane tells Ramin she forgives him, she is further outraged when he replies that his father is not a murderer because “he killed Communists and Communists are evil”. We understand how difficult this is for her. All this happens in 15 frames.

These experiences develop her natural strength and intelligence — she continues to be outspoken at school and does not retreat when confronted with inequalities. The Iran/Iraq War puts the distressed society under overwhelming pressure and we know that Marjane will not be able to keep quiet. The end of the book is only the end of part 1. Part 2 will be just as interesting.

The Luminaries ~ Eleanor Catton

The Luminaries won the Man Booker Prize for Fiction last year. The Man Booker Prize for Fiction is a literary prize awarded each year for the best original novel, written in the English language, by a citizen of the Commonwealth of Nations, the Republic of Ireland, or Zimbabwe.

Robert Macfarlane, Chair of judges, 2013 Man Booker Prize, said this about it:

Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, set in the New Zealand gold rush, slowly but deeply staked its claim upon the judges. It is animated by a weird struggle between compulsion and conversion: within its pages, men and women proceed according to their fixed fates, while gold – as flakes, nuggets, coins and bars – ceaselessly shifts its shapes around them. In this way capital and character are brought both to clash and to meld. At 832 pages, it might seem like one of Henry James’s ‘big, baggy monster’ novels, but in fact it is as intricately structured as an orrery. Each section is half the length of its predecessor, right down to the final, astonishing pages. It is a book, therefore, which does things brilliantly by halves.  – See more at:

And one of their reasons for giving the prize to Catton?

…….we [the judges] are confident that this is the one that does the most to invigorate and renew its chosen form. This is the one that makes the novel seem novel again. (Quoted in The Telegraph, 16th Oct 2013.)

That is a big statement, but I am sorry to say that I don’t have an opinion on whether the book does that. I am not sure that I agree that the novel stopped being a novel, as this quote seems to imply. Do I understand why it won? In part. Catton controls her writing so beautifully. The plot is so complex, but never convoluted and she maintains an ‘old fashioned’ style of writing all the way through. While it was a great read, it was not a brilliant read, and I feel that prize winning books should be. 

While a lot has been said about the astrological aspects of the book, really the heart of the plot was a murder mystery, with gold hidden in the seams of dresses, lost crates, lost miners, duffer gold claims, unsigned deeds and lots of opium smoked. There were stories and tales told, overheard conversations and secret meetings. The first chapter, which is half the book, is like a jigsaw puzzle where each character adds what he knows to the whole mystery. But it is never straight forward and the tale loops back on itself. It is intricately structured and I marvel at how Catton was able to keep it all straight as she wrote it. It must have been some whiteboard!

It is not a book that I have fallen in love with, but it is one that I would recommend. Don’t be put off by the length, just go along for a rollicking good ride!

Ash: A secret history  ~ Mary Gentle

However, I would not recommend Ash unless you were a fan of Mary Gentle’s  work or enjoyed modern medieval style of novels. I enjoyed it but it is LONG. While I was distracted with other books, I had to renew this 3 times from the library! I never thought I would say this about a book, but it would have been much better as a trilogy, then you could pause between sections.

Ash is a young woman who has become a very successful mercenary captain in Europe in the 1470s.  She is successful because she hears voices during battle. As the story progresses she finds out that she is channeling a Stone Golem, which in turn is being used by Wild Machines that use the power of the pyramids.

The story of Ash is a recently found manuscript being translated by an modern academic, who, in email correspondence with his publisher, is discovering that Ash’s world is one that is an alternate world to the one we know. So it is also about alternative and parallel universes.

 While all of this sounds odd and unbelievable, Gentle actually pulls it off. Partly because her knowledge and understanding of Medieval life builds a realistic world. But it is mainly because Ash is a very convincing character and the reason I kept on reading. 

Books of the Month

January books — from The Midnight Mayor to Nazi Germany

A Madness of Angels, or the Resurrection of Matthew Swift by Kate Griffin

Also The Midnight Mayor, or the inauguration of Matthew Swift

I had read The Minority Council late last year. Of course it turned out to be number 4 in the series — don’t you hate that, not starting a series at the beginning. But I loved the book so much that I willing hunted out the first at the Library. (This is not a difficult task, as I can request them online and hey presto! they appear at my local branch.)

To the books…..

Matthew Swift was an reasonably good sorcerer before he was killed. After he was resurrected he became an amazing one. This is not giving anything away. He is dead before the book begins, and the opening pages describe his resurrection, and the resurrection within him of the blue angels. The blue angels/Matthew Swift draw magic from electricity and phone lines, giving them power that very few magical creatures can withstand.

Griffin has taken the traditional element of fantasy, such as magic, wizards, sorcerers, fairies and so on and woven them into something new and dynamic. I am new to the concept of Urban Magic, so her ideas may be mainstream within this genre. However I would be very surprised if that was the case. London sits firmly in the centre of her creation and it is the movements, patterns, history that creates the magic.

I love the real London, and I love the London Griffin has created. I can easy believe in the gritty, powerful magic of the city.

An example of this urban magic — Swift uses his Oyster card to fend off an dangerous creature, Hunger, at an Underground barrier. He explains later that

…everyone and everything has its own unique magic. The underground’s magic is defined by the rhythms that go through it. It’s like a heartbeat, a pulse, the flow of life like blood through its veins, describing in every detail the shape of power in its tunnels. When you go into the underground, you buy a ticket, you pass through the barrier, you enter its tunnels, you take the train, you use your ticket, you exit through the barrier. This part of what defines it, this is part of what makes the taste of magic different, heavy, crowded, full of dirt and noise and life and strength. If you know that this magic is there, if you understand the rhythms that shaped it, it is a very simple matter to harness it to a spell that utilises to the full its unique signature.

There is the Beggar King, and the Bag Lady — “She isn’t simply a bag lady….she is The Bag Lady, the queen of all those who scuttle in the night, gibbering to themselves, and the voices that only they can hear. She is the mistress of the mad old women in slippers who ride the buses….she is the lady of all dirty puddles…..However, when the pigeons were nested for the night, it was to the Bag Lady that my gran would always offer her prayers.” There is a litter monster, the last train and, in The Minority Council, fairy dust, more powerful and more addictive that any drug found in our world. There is the spirit of the train conductor, who helps Swift after accepting a gift of The Train Journey’s Companion.

Switft’s urban magic doesn’t work in the countryside, or even in the large London parks like Regents Park.

It sounds cute, and parts of it are endearing, much of it witty. However it is also strong and violent. Right from the beginning of each book Swift has to fend off  monsters that are overpoweringly awful.

Angry. Attacked, burnt, attacked, hurt, attacked, fled, attacked, attacked, attacked, gunning for us, gunning for me, gunning for my….for people who stopped to help. (From early into  The Midnight Mayor)

The action pulls you along and you discover what the blue angels are and who brought Swift back to life. He is no superhero, but a well drawn character who, while making mistakes, also knows when to use a can of spray paint, an Oyster card or the by-laws of the Underground!

And by the way, her distinctive writing is pretty good too! I am so looking forward to reading the third book. I just hope there is a fifth, sixth, seventh etc!!

A man without breath by Philip Kerr

(Warning, this review has a big spoiler in it.)

Many years ago I read a trio of stories by Kerr about his detective, Bernard Gunther. What made these stories standout in the vast genre of crime fiction was that Gunther was a detective in Berlin in the late 1930s. In these stories Gunther had to tread carefully, while holding onto his own moral compass. So, when I saw this one on the Library shelves I wanted to read it. And I got about to thirds of the way through when I decided not to finish it. This is most unusual for me, especially as I had got so far.

It wasn’t the awful subject matter of the story, although that was pretty gruesome. It is set in March, 1943. Gunther is working for the German War Crimes Bureau and has been sent to Smolensk, in German occupied Russia, to investigate a mass grave found in a forest. If it is the grave of thousands of Polish officers who had been murdered by the Russians, it is good propaganda for the Germans. If it is where the SS murdered thousands of Jews, then it must be a secret that stays buried.

Smolensk is a frozen town filled with anxieties and fears, with not much food or hope. Other murders happen that Gunther is drawn to solving.

What countered the foul taste in my mouth while reading this was that Gunther and others are determinedly anti-Nazi. Kerr’s research has found events that shine like a beacon in this dark time.

One was a protest. On February 28th 1943 Berlin’s last Jews were rounded up for deportation. A couple of thousand were held in the Jewish Welfare Office. They were Jews who had non-Jewish wives. The wives protested outside the office and, miraculously, their husbands were released. They were the only Jews who were not deported. As Gunther, the narrator, muses:

……it begged the question, what might have been achieved if mass protests had taken place before? It was a sobering thought that the first organised opposition to the Nazis in ten years had probably succeeded.

What made me close the book [spoiler alert!] was when Gunther murdered a man, and it wasn’t one of the baddies. It wasn’t done in an argument or rage. Gunther uses the Greater Good Argument, but I don’t think that was good enough. He is a detective in the Philip Marlowe mould — hard bitten but with a core of decency. That’s why he is anti-Nazi. That’s why I couldn’t countenance his murder of another anti-Nazi.  I don’t want my Good Guys to behave like the Bad Guys. That’s why I had to close the book.

Books of the Month

A December Book

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know it is the end of January….but this is a stand out book from December and it has been waiting patiently to be written about. (The Library has not been as patient — I had a few dollars to pay in fines!)

The Maid’s Version by Daniel Woodrell.

Winter’s Bone, another of Woodrell’s, is one of my favourite books. The Maid’s Version doesn’t  quite reach that height, but it comes close. The story centres around an explosion in a dance hall in a small Missouri town in 1929. 42 people were killed. No one was ever brought to account for the crime, but Alma Dunahew, who lost her sister in the explosion, does know the secrets that lead to it. Many years later she tells her grandson.

Like any good story, the plot outline is only the beginning, and can never tell all that needs to be told. The story moves back and forth, between  past and present. I enjoy the challenge of books that move without notice into different times and different characters. This book had an extra challenge — chapters about the lives of some who died in the blast. They would appear and then not be heard of again.

Woodrell’s writing is superb, forcing me to read much slower than I usually do, to enjoy the way he can capture so much in one sentence.

Ruby DeGeer didn’t mind breaking hearts, but she liked them to shatter coolly, with no ugly scenes of departure, where an arm got twisted behind her back by a crying man, or her many failings and damp habits were made specific in words shouted out an open window.


[Buster] ……..struggled with a dual matrimony, having become betrothed to the bottle also, a love he encountered early and fell for straightaway.

Or his wonderful descriptions that meld perfectly with the rest of the story.

Alma was of a height that earned no description save “regular”, sturdy in her legs and chest, and her hair was an ordinary who-gives-a-hoot brown, with finger waves above the ears that always collapsed into messy curls as the day went along.

This quote, like much of his writing, reminds me of Cormack McCarthy:

The trains beating past toward the fabled beyond, the sound of each wheel-thump singing, You’re going nowhere, you’re going nowhere, and these wheels are, they are, they are going far from where you lie listening in your smallness and will still lie small at dawn after they are gone from hearing, rolling on singing long twin rails over the next hill and down and up over the next onward to those milk -and-honey environs where motion pictures happen for real and history is made and large dashing lives you won’t lead or even witness are lived.

Move Daniel Woodrell up to the top of your reading list — and let me know what you think.