Ursula Le Guin is one of my heroes, in as much as I have them. Which is, to say, hardly at all, but her writing has often astounded me, literally impacting how I perceived the world. When I was a teen, ‘The Left Hand of Darkness‘ did more to challenge my conception of gender identity than anything I would read or hear for years. However, her writing has also felt somewhat laborious to me, so when I saw this book of blog-style posts, I leapt at the chance to read it (figuratively, naturally. You think I leap at my age? What am I, a frog?) At any rate, I absolutely loved her in short-form, her words seemingly a little less crafted than her novels, sounding more like her voice, talking about everyday things–“The point of a soft-boiled egg is the difficulty of eating it, the attention it requires, the ceremony”–writerly things and general opinion pieces.
It’s really, really good. The book comes with an introduction by Karen Joy Fowler and a note from Le Guin about her purpose and the informality of the writing. Part One: Going Over Eighty is one of my favorite sections. Part Two: The Lit Biz is in theory about literary stuff and contains some insight into the life of the writer –readers’ questions and awards’– as well as discussion on things like ubiquitousness of swearing and narration. Part Three: Trying to Make Sense of it is the most topical section. It was interesting, but not as favorite. Part Four: Rewards shines, with writing beautiful enough, polished enough to remind me why she’s a master. Parts One, Two and Three are all followed by The Annals of Pard, brief pieces about her latest cat. I have a ridiculous amount of highlights, my Kindle equivalent of ‘mm-hmm’ affirmations.
The posts on aging are excellent and I probably could have just highlighted the entire piece of ‘The Diminished Thing.’ It does not sound as if aging has come easily, and I appreciate that she is both honest and old in claiming it. “Old age isn’t a state of mind. It’s an existential situation.” How beautifully she negates the ‘you are only as old as you think you are’ mouthings!
I admire how she somewhat irascibly shares what she perceives as her failings. I love that she calls out the new generations of almost-memoirs with a writerly note on genres, and then gracefully turns it into a discussion of Delores, her ‘hired help’ who was so important to her (‘Someone Named Delores’). I was fascinated by the entries on Pard, the latest cat, and his periodic skirmishes with mice. I think she summarized the entire problem with modern politics in three sentences (from ‘The Diminished Thing’ in Aging, no less):
“This is morally problematic when personal decision is confused with personal opinion. A decision worth the name is based on observation, factual information, intellectual and ethical judgment. Opinion–that darling of the press, the politician, and the poll–may be based on no information at all.”
There’s an interesting piece on what fantasy is that affirms why I’ve read so much in the field. My favorite highlight: “It doesn’t have to be the way it is. That is what fantasy says… Yet it is a subversive statement.” Can we please remind those who are nostalgic for the sprawling epic fantasies of the 80s and 90s or the pulp fantasy of the 50s and 60s that we can do more?
Part Three definitely spoke to me, with parts of it echoing my own hopelessness. From ‘Lying it All Away:’ “It appears that we’ve given up on the long-range view. That we’ve decided not to think about consequences–about cause and effect. Maybe that’s why I feel that I live in exile. I used to live in a country that had a future.”
It makes me wish for a coffee conversation, time to dive in and chew at these ideas. I wished I knew even more about her life, because I sense a kindred spirit, an introvert who communicates best through words, who appears transparent about ideas but extremely private about details of real life. The closing piece, is so crafted and beautiful it makes me tear. From ‘Notes From a Week at a Ranch in the Oregon High Desert’:
“Hundreds of blackbirds gathered in the pastures south of the house, vanishing completely in the tall grass, then rising out of it in ripples and billows, or streaming and streaming up into a single tree up under the ridge till its lower branches were blacker with birds than green with leaves, then flowing down away from it into the reeds and out across the air in a single, flickering, particulate wave. What is entity?”
Many, many thanks to NetGalley and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for the advance reader copy. Quotes may change in final publication but are included to give a sense of the excellent writing.