A Few Quiet Ones

I’m in a space right now where I’m preferring what I call “quiet” books—books low on drama, high on the fabric of everyday lives, and focused mostly on the inner landscapes of the characters.

The Other Wind by Ursula K. Le Guin: The first of these quiet books that I loved, loved, and loved was Le Guin’s last in The Earthsea CycleThe Other Wind. By the way did you know that Tehanu was followed by Tales from Earthsea, and then The Other Wind? I just kind of chanced upon that info, and then of course had to read them! I read a few of the short stories from Tales as well, including “Dragonfly,” knowing which helps in contextualising The Other Wind.

The reason why I loved The Other Wind is the same as why I loved Tehanu—the action and the scenes and the settings are intimate rather than being grandiose. It’s a more contemplative, and more conversation-driven than an action-packed story. The action-carriers, and plot-movers, are people who’d be deemed as ordinary (non-wizards), and not really all that important (women) in this world. There’s no really “high magic” in any of this. Even though the series started with Ged, the last book isn’t about him at all. It deals with the rest of the Earthsea, and puts to rest some of the big philosophical underpinnings of this world (and does it in a way that I personally loved by the way).

Someone to Hold by Mary Balogh: Ahhh, at last a historical romance that I enjoyed. Partly it’s the low-key setting (streets of Bath, school-rooms), but mostly it’s because of the characters. It was really satisfying to see the way Balogh charts Camille’s growth as she goes from floundering around and being unsure of herself to understanding what she wants, and why she wants it. Balogh also gives the reader an insight into why Camille’s doing all that she is, and that prevents her from being an annoying gnat. Joel, the hero, is an engaging character as well—a painter who’s interested in painting people as they ARE rather than how they appear to be. I think the number one reason why I love Balogh’s latest stories so much is because of their lack of “fashionable” cynicism. The characters in her book are hurt, and have problems, but that is not the sum total of who they are. Rather, these problems become the bouncing off place from which the characters explore more of themselves, and from which the subsequent story ensues, and unfolds. I’m really hoping that Viola, Camille’s mother, gets a story of her own too!

No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith: This book was a balm to my soul exactly when I needed one. This book has also made me realize that one reason why I love the stories I do is because of their setting. The open spaces of the deserts of Botswana was exactly what I needed to read at the moment, the warmth and the heat exactly what I was craving for while awaiting spring. The pace of the story is slow. It’s almost a series of vignettes strung together. There is a kindness to this book, a warmth, that probably stems from its thoughtful and deliberate protagonist Mma Ramotswe. The cases that come her way are of the everyday variety, and yet they’re never boring to read about. Some parts of the book feel dated, and slightly problematic (in terms of the attitude towards women, kids, etc.) but that doesn’t stop this from being a wholesome pleasure. I’m very definitely continuing with this series.

What about you? Do you have a preference for any particular type of book (including quiet ones)? Maybe that preference keeps changing? In any case, I’d love to get some recommendations for more “quiet” books!

Shticks and Shenanigans. Mostly.

Miss Buncle’s Book by D.E. Stevenson: It’s possible that if I hadn’t read Jane and Prudence so recently, I’d have enjoyed Miss Buncle’s Book more. I was all prepared to be charmed but I found most of the characters, including the titular Miss Buncle to be just too insipid! This book just isn’t fun the way Barbara Pym’s Jane and Prudence is. I know, I know, they are two separate entities—why the comparison? Well, because they are both set in quaint English villages, detail the lives of those who people the said quaint villages, and both aspire to charm their readers (or so I think anyway!)

The problem is Miss Buncle’s Book has characters who are kind of cardboard cut-outs of various prototypes. So you have the gold-digger, the capable spinster, the queen of the social circle, the retired army-man, etc. etc. Their interactions are kind of interesting but each character in and of themselves are just plain boring. They’re simply not interesting enough for me to care much about them. (On the other hand, I WANTED to know what was going on with the characters in Jane and Prudence.)

I am wondering if I should give another of Stevenson’s books a go to see if I might like her any better? What do you guys think? Have you read any of her works? Did you like it?

“Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang: This one was prompted by the movie. We saw the movie, and wanted to read the story to see a) if we were right about the parts which had been Hollywoodized aka dramatized unnecessarily (we were) b) if the story was better than the movie. Duh. It was. Of course. I love sci-fi for the ideas it explores, and this was no-different. From the wielding of the Sapir-Whorf theorem (which is even more dramatically illustrated in the chapter “The Grammar of Animacy” in Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Brading Sweetgrass which I absolutely loved and am waiting for my turn at the library again so that I can finish it!), to Fermat’s Least Time Principle to the deconstruction of languages to my least favorite part of the story about free-will and determinism, “The Story of Us” weaves lots of stuff into a seamless plot. If you liked the movie, or are interested in any of the things I mentioned, I’d urge you to read it!

The Penderwicks at Point Mouette by Jeanne Birdsall: What is it about Birdsall’s stories that gives me all the feels? There’s something so honest about the way her characters think, and feel, and interact that I can’t help being sucked into their world. My favorite character by the way, is the five year old Batty! The sisters’ adventures reminds me of Enid Blyton but the depth, and the fullness of their inner lives reminds me of Elinor M. Brent Dyer’s Chalet School series. And there’s so much humor in Birdsall’s world! I wish I could be more coherent about these books. Maybe I’ll have more to say on a re-read? Do you love the Penderwicks too?

In Which I Read Some Meh Books (and re-read a favorite)

I very eagerly started The Goblin Emperor by Kathleen Addison only to DNF it. It was the political intrigues! Apparently, I am not one for endless court politics. They bore me to tears. I liked . . . erm, I don’t remember our protagonist’s name? I liked the untenable position he found himself in, and his struggle for legitimacy while staying true to who he is, but when I found myself at the half-way mark, and realized that the reason for my reaching that half-way mark was the skipping of dozens of paragraphs in between pages, I knew it was time to return the book rather than continue persevering. I was also held back by the sheer number of characters and the abundance of consonants in their names. I kept forgetting who was who, and having to constantly turn to the index at the end to look them all up took a toll. Have any of you read it? Did you enjoy it?

The Vor Game by Lois Mcmaster Bujold was next. And it was nice, though it’s of a slightly different mien than The Warrior’s Apprentice. It has space hi-jinks, and Miles getting caught in impossible situations, but it was different in feel than TWA. TWA introduced Miles, in TVG we see his development as a lowly officer in the emperor’s army. (And since lowly and Miles do not go together, fireworks ensue). An essential part of Miles’s character that comes across very clearly in this book is his desire to be a part of, and to serve Barrayar. I’ve been wondering about this. Why does he yearn for this so much? Why not move to his mother’s home planet? Or somewhere else? Is it because of his father’s legacy? I’m interested in seeing what Bujold has in store for him through the course of the series.

Edith Layton’s The Duke’s Wager was next, and I didn’t really enjoy it. I’m not one for much angst in my reading and this one while not being angsty, was much too emotionally fraught. I never got around to caring much for any of the characters either. The heroine was the kind of ingénue who I want to shake, and slap, rather than be amused by, and the reasons behind the two anti-heroes’ dissoluteness felt too pointless for me to buy into it (though come to think of it while Layton makes a creditable attempt to give some backstory to Jason, Sinjun’s dissipation is never really explained at all). The culmination of Regina’s and Jason’s character arc to such a point where the two’s coming together feels authentic is very well done though.

I also finally gave in and re-read Georgette Heyer’s Frederica, rather than storing it for a “rainy day.” I want to write a longer post on this one later but along with The Unknown Ajax, this is probably my favorite Heyer. Although both have such different settings, and heroes, the one thing in common between them is the humor! The banter between Alverstoke, and Frederica just slays me! Slays me, I tell you! (And then there’s Felix, and Jessamy, and Lufra, but I’ll reserve them for the longer post).

So what have you been reading friends? Any spectacular meh-s (or stand-outs) in your reading pile recently?

The Ordinary Lives of Women: Jane and Prudence by Barbara Pym & Tehanu by Ursula K. Le Guin

Both Tehanu, and Jane and Prudence place women at their center. The focus of both the stories is on the “small” things that occupies a woman’s space. And it is this very “smallness” of their scope that I loved so much!

jane-and-prudenceJane and Prudence is silly, funny, and immensely readable.

It’s silly because its two protagonists, Jane and Prudence, are silly, though not twits. Pym writes about their follies with such generosity that it is very hard to look at them with anything but affection, and/or amusement.

Jane is a country vicar’s wife, and has a tendency to expect her real life experiences to play out as their fictional counterparts do. She often drifts off into her own thoughts and finds it rather comforting to cast her experiences in terms of the obscure 17th century poetry that she studied in Oxford, fragments of which surface up in her consciousness now, and then. She isn’t anyone’s idea of a vicar’s wife, and her presence is vaguely uncomfortable to those around her (most noticeably her daughter) but she is cheerfully impervious to this. What prevents her from becoming annoying is this very cheerfulness, this joie de vivre—never mind the reception of this joie de vivre! Her bouts of self-awareness, and her amusement at herself help too. And on a related noted, Pym’s gentle invoking of Trollope-like books throughout the story to  make fun of them by (generally!) underscoring the departure of real lives from fictional ones is quite funny!

Then there’s Prudence. I almost want to add a “poor” in front of Prudence! She starts the book by imagining herself in love with her middle-aged frump of a boss, spends most of the book with a man who shines and sparkles—though not in the intelligence department— and ends with someone who seems to be happily her equal! She’s unapologetic about her string of lovers, and recalls them all rather fondly! Jane and Prudence are quite different from one another, and even though the book is called “Jane and Prudence,” the book is not so much about their relationship with each other as much as their relationship with the world around them.

I think Pym’s genius lies in characterization. Each person in the book is unique, and feels very real. The cast of secondary characters is delightful. And again, they are sketched with such generosity that their absurdities amuse you rather than annoy you! I didn’t agree with all of Pym’s conclusions about marriage, gender roles, and men, but that didn’t prevent me from having a jolly good time!

Tehanu by Ursula K. Le Guin

tehanuI loved Tehanu. I faintly recall the first book (in the Earthsea series), remember some of The Tombs Of Atuan, and haven’t read the third one. The story places Tenar, who was rescued by and shared the stage with Ged, in The Tombs of Atuan, at its center. In Tehanu, Ged shares the stage with Tenar.

We find out that Tenar gave up her sort-of-apprenticeship with Ogion in order to become Goha, a farmer’s wife, who runs a house and has children and as different an experience as possible from the one she had  as Tenar at Atuan.

Reader, I cannot tell you how much I enjoyed reading Tehanu. I like making a haven of my home. I like cooking. I take pleasure in tasks that would seem chores at best, and meaningless at worst. I like domestic activities, and there was a period in my life when I was bothered by my apparent enjoyment of domesticity. I wondered if I were a less of a feminist because of this.

For me, Tehanu too seems to be exploring these very issues. Are things related to home and hearth diminutive in nature? And does this diminution carry over to, and makes small, whoever is the care-taker of home and hearth?

Le Guin asks of her characters, and her readers, what is the source of magic in Earthsea? What is the appeal of magic? What about it makes Ged, who is no longer a mage in Tehanu, feel broken, and ashamed of himself? From where does magic draw its power? Is the potential of an “ordinary village witch” any less than that of a trained wizard? Is what she does any less because she does not know the “true” language? What is the source of a woman’s magic? Is it fundamentally any different than a man’s? Why are the men in Earthsea (especially the mages) so afraid of women?

Tenar comes into her own in this book. She has experienced the “authority allotted her by the arrangements of mankind,” and is now ready to explore beyond these boundaries. Not for her, the divisive, constricting definitions of home, power, or wisdom.

I’ll end with Le Guin’s own words from the Afterword:

“What cannot be mended must be transcended.”

Maybe the change coming into Earthsea has something to do with no longer identifying freedom with power, with separating being free from being in control. There is a kind of refusal to serve power that isn’t a revolt or a rebellion, but a revolution in the sense of reversing meanings, of changing how things are understood. Anyone who has been able to break from the grip of controlling, crippling belief or bigotry or enforced ignorance knows the sense of coming out into the light and air, of release, being set free to fly, to transcend.

In Brief: Recently Read (Neels, Pratchett, Wynne Jones)

betty-neels-vicars-daughterThe Vicar’s Daughter by Betty Neels: I take my time with a Betty Neels story, and I like taking my time with a Betty Neels story. In no rush to reach the end, I savor all the details that I know for sure I will encounter in one of Neels’s story. This one was no different. In fact, it was a pleasant revelation of sorts! A few pages into the story, it hit me that I’d read this one years ago, and disdained its nothing-happens-in-it-ness. I also recall feeling disgusted at the sheer stupidity of its heroine. What a pleasant surprise to find that it was exactly its quietness that made me enjoy the story this time around. And what I’d labeled as Margo’s stupidity, now came across as an endearing quality. Isn’t it fun, and funny, how a few years, and some living of life changes the way we perceive a thing? Have you had any reading experience where you’ve swung from one side of the pendulum to another? (Or perhaps just drifted along the spectrum?)

Wintersmith by Terry Pratchett: Need I mention that I loved it? If there were such a thing as a spirit author, I think Terry Pratchett would be mine. I find myself highlighting/marking reams and reams in any Pratchett story I read. He’s thought-provoking, funny (even when things are NOT fun!), and generally some flavor of what I’ve experienced as “true” in my own life. I’ve already put another of his Discworld stories (Going Postal) on hold (I want there to be some passage of time between Wintersmith, and the next Tiffany Aching story that I read).

Tiffany grows up some more in Wintersmith. She (and we) experience the power of the stories we tell ourselves (and others), and come to inhabit, even more forcefully. There’s this whole “Boffo” plot in the story centered around this concept that I absolutely loved (and don’t want to talk about for fear of spoiling it!)

It made sense. Of course it made sense. It was all Boffo! Every stick is a wand, every puddle is a crystal ball. No thing had any power that you didn’t put there. Shambles and skulls and wands were like . . . shovels and knives and spectacles. They were like . . . levers. With a lever you could lift a big rock, but the lever didn’t do any work.

Annagramma, who we met in A Hat Full of Sky, returns in Wintersmith.  She’s as unthinking, stupid, and annoying (Tiffany’s words!) as before but it’s interesting to note that in time of need she turns to Tiffany, and that Tiffany finds it in her to see to the truth of Annagramma—annoying but also perhaps a little frightened at her core, and deserving of Tiffany’s help. I’d call them frenemies, and I actually find their relationship oddly satisfying.

Annagramma does not suddenly transform into a kind soul herself as a result of all the kindness she receives. She continues to be annoying but her annoyingness does lose its edge. It becomes more rounded, and she herself becomes more bearable as we see this side of her where she’s willing to ask for help, and follow-through on what she receives. I really like how her character developed in Wintersmith, and I hope there’s more of her in the next two books!

Also, this!:

Tiffany had looked up “strumpet” in the Unexpurgated Dictionary, and found it meant “a woman who is no better than she should be” and “a lady of easy virtue.” This, she decided after some working out, meant that Mrs. Gytha Ogg, known as Nanny, was a very respectable person. She found virtue easy, for one thing. And if she was no better than she should be, then was just as good as she ought to be.

witch-weekWitch Week by Diana Wynne Jones: So here’s the thing. I find Diana Wynne Jones intellectually satisfying but I find Pratchett intellectually AND emotionally satisfying. Does that make sense? Has anyone else experienced this with respect to these two authors (or maybe another pair)? Maybe you’ve felt the exact reverse of what I stated?

This is my sixth Wynne Jones (I’ve read the first two in Howl’s Moving Castle, and the first four in Chrestomanci), and I am very definitely going to be reading A LOT more of her books but I find myself contemplating this difference in the way I connect with Jones, and Pratchett.

I think part of it maybe because of the fact that in most of the books I’ve read so far (by Jones), I have NO IDEA what is going on till more than the half-way mark while I have some dim sense of the meaning underlying the gobbledygook in Pratchett. Then there’s the setting of Pratchett’s story vs. Wynne Jones’s. Tiffany Aching’s world is one of plains, and forests, while most of the Wynne Jones’s stories that I’ve read so far happens in buildings—schools, castles, houses. In and of itself, I wouldn’t find this particularly claustrophobic. But when I juxtapose it with Pratchett’s stories, I can’t help feeling slightly confined by them. There’s this sense of openness, this sense of an all-encompassing-ness that I feel in the Tiffany Aching stories, and that I find myself responding to which I don’t feel in Wynne Jones’s books. It is of course possible that this does indeed exist in Wynne Jones’s world too and is just something I haven’t tuned in to yet! Even in terms of their systems of magic, Wynne Jones’s just is (and there’s nothing wrong with that!) but I do so love the way it seems to work in Pratchett’s, or Tiffany Aching’s world at any rate. It’s this heady mix of a zen-like practise, common sense, the use of herbs and plants, and a leveraging of folklore that appeals to me! (And I am not even referring to what “witching” is really supposed to be about!)

What about Witch Week itself? It is so clever! (Also, the next paragraph MIGHT be considered spoiler-ish so consider yourself warned)

At its heart, this is a book about the ways in which we cope with being different. The characters in the book try to hide their differences, feel scared at being different, and do their best to blend in. And yet, they can’t help feeling pulled towards what they perceive as being different within them. I thought the twist in the end regarding this was simply spectacular. Turns out EVERYONE is different! I’m a little in awe of the way the story and the theme are so inseparable in this one!

I liked this but I enjoyed Conrad’s Fate and The Lives of Christopher Chant more. I’m also really looking forward to The Magicians of Caprona, and The Pinhoe Egg, both of whose summaries make me think that I’ll probably enjoy them! Fingers-crossed!

A No-Point List

The Book That Was On Hold The Longest In My Library List Before I Unfroze It: The Warrior’s Apprentice by Lois McMaster Bujold (I put it on hold in March, froze it, and then unfroze it in December. I loved it by the way in case you’re wondering)

The Book That I’m Still Not Sure I Can Articulate Properly About: The Argonauts because I  loved reading a “mainstream” book that articulated so much of what I think-feel, especially its focus on joy (or what I felt was one of its focus anyway).

The Book That Introduced Me to My New Comfort Author: The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, And A Very Interesting Boy by Jeanne Birdsall

The Author That I AM GLAD WROTE SO MANY BOOKS: Betty Neels (also known as one of my comfort read authors)

The Poetry Book That I Inhaled In One Sitting: Felicity by Mary Oliver (it’s only 96 pages long!)

The One Book That I Wish Was in Print so that I COULD BUY IT!: Cherry Cake & Ginger Beer by Jane Brocket

The Book That I Am So Glad Was Written: The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

The Book That I Never Expected to Read: Poetics of Reverie by Gaston Bachelard (Still on the first chapter. I read only a few pages at a time, and only when I’m in the mood for it. But holy hell, some of the bits make me yelp out loud because it is SO ME!)

The Book I Was Looking Forward to Reading The Most and Left Mid-Way: Middlemarch by George Eliot. Life happened to this one. I still plan on picking it up at some point of time.

The Book I HAD TO LOOK UP THE END OF (NOT my modus operandi): Too Like The Lightning by Ada Palmer. Cliff-hanger ending! So decided to leave the book unfinished, and come back to it after the second in the series is released in February. BUT. I had ALL THE FEELS about the almost one-third that I DID manage to finish.

And, my biggest readerly realization this year: to be cognizant of the fact that another’s response to a book, and the book itself are two very distinct things. And so even though I might enjoy what someone else thinks-feels about a book, I myself might not enjoy the book in question, because, well, I am me. With my own interests, beliefs, background, and all the stuff that makes up who I am. Sounds obvious when I think about it but this has been an important realization for me as a reader to come to this year!

So that’s my no-point list for 2016! As always, I don’t think I have any specific reading goals for the coming year except the general intention to read things that bring comfort, joy, and expand the way I think of, and relate to the world around me! Hopefully, some times, I will also manage to find the happy marriage of all three!

O, hai!

Hello Readers! If there are any! I was inspired by this lovely post to write something—anything!

Let’s see what have I been reading lately?

Lots of cookbooks! (I love cooking!) Enough that I want to buy a new bookcase sometime soon, so that I can have a whole shelf dedicated to my cookbooks! What would I keep on it? Food52’s Genius Recipes, Deborah Madison’s The New Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, Madhur Jaffrey’s Vegetarian India, Jane Brocket’s Cherry Cake and Ginger Beer (that is IF I can find a copy somewhere!), and Karen Page’s The Vegetarian Flavor Bible (I love this book!) I’m also looking forward to the new Food52 cookbook, and Julia Thurshen’s Small Victories very, very much!

There’s been some other stuff too—Diana Wynne Jones’s Conrad’s Fate (I have to say that I wish I’d started Jones with the Chrestomanci series rather than Howl’s Moving CastleHowl made me feel slightly off-kilter, and so I ended up being more focused on the plot; the Chrestomanci series on the other hand puts me on a more comfortable footing with Wynne Jones’s style, probably because it has the familiar comfort of all the school adventures that I read as a kid!), Pussy: A Reclamation, some Betty Neels (my new favorite: Fate is Remarkable), Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost which is on perpetual hold at my library, so I read some, then return it, then read again, and return it—but mostly, I haven’t been reading that much.

In many ways, it feels to me as if I’m going through a period of wanting to know myself more. I’m sure there is a phrase to describe this—this wanting to burrow deeper within myself. To feel more of that core that I feel when I meditate, to live from this core, to be an expression of this core, to see the world through the eyes of this core, if that makes sense.

I can completely understand if you’re wondering whether I’ve gone off my rocker! This too is me, it’s just not something that I’ve expressed a whole lot of, here, in this particular space, before.

Anyhoo, I’ll end with my current favorite string of words which happens to be from The Poetics of Reverie:

Reverie sacralizes its object.

Wishing you all safe spaces, and happy hearts!