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!

Mysteries of the Universe & of the Heart: Romance, Black Holes, and Poetry

Since I haven’t been in the mood to write posts on individual books, I decided to do a list of the stuff that I’ve been reading in the recent past!

old fashioned girl betty neelsAn Old-Fashioned Girl by Betty Neels: I loved this one. Partly it’s because of the heroine, Patience, who while not exactly unflappable, has an equanimity that’s not very common to Neels’ heroines. I also realized why Neels is such a comfort read for me—her descriptions evoke this feeling of utter soothing-ness that I can’t help but love! The first third of An Old-Fashioned Girl is set in a small village which is beset by a snowstorm, leaving our hero, heroine, and the housekeeper trapped inside for days on end. The pages that followed were some of my favorite—I really liked the description of the minutiae of  their snowbound lives. (Which is why I think enjoyed Longbourn so much—because of the minutiae I mean). Then there’s the staple food and furniture renditions which is such fun to picture in the mind’s eye.

Light Years, Memoir of a Modern Lighthouse Keeper by Caroline Woodard: I’m making my way through this at a glacial speed. I like picking it up when I’m in the mood for it, generally before going to bed, and reading maybe half a chapter at a time. Like the Neels, I find the descriptions of the barely-tamed Canadian wildness very soothing, and also very liberating. Joy and solitude co-exist in this one.

Lord of Scoundrels by Loretta Chase: I can see why this is such a reader favorite. It would have been very easy to thoroughly dislike Sebastian Dain, except that we keep getting glimpses into his inner workings, and the reasons why he does what he does, and in that process it’s easy to feel sympathetic towards him. Plus, Jessica! What a wonderful heroine! Another woman, who while not exactly unflappable, knows how to keep her head. Thinking back, it occurs to me that Sebastian is a hero who has all the feels but didn’t really know what to do with them!

The Poet, the Lion, Talking Pictures, El Farolito, A Wedding in St. Roch, The Big Box Store, The Warp in the Mirror, Spring, Midnights, Fire & All by C.D. Wright:

In a Word, a World

I love them all.

I love that a handful, a mouthful, gets you by, a satcheful can land you a job, a well-chosen clutch of them could get you laid, and that a solitary word can initiate a stampede, and therefore can be formally outlawed—even by a liberal court bent on defending a constitution guaranteeing unimpeded utterance. I love that the Argentine gaucho has over two hundred words the coloration of horses and the Sami language of Scandinavia has over a thousand words for reindeer based on age, sex, appearance—e.g. a busat has big balls or only one big ball. More than the pristine, I love the filthy ones for their descriptive talent as well as transgressive nature. I love the dirty ones more than the minced, in that I respect extravagant expression more than reserved. I admire reserve, especially when taken to an ascetic nth. I love the particular lexicons of particular occupations. The substrate of those activities. The nomenclature within nomenclatures. I am of the unaccredited school that believes animals did not exist until Adam assigned them names. My relationship to the word is anything but scientific; it is a matter of faith on my part, that the word endows material substance, by setting the thing named apart from all else. Horse, then, unhorses what is not horse.

The Outskirter’s Secret by Rosemary Kirstein: I decided to take a break while I was mid-way through the fourth in the series but I can say with utmost certainty that it’s this second in the series that shall remain my favorite. The outskirts in the second book are akin to endless grasslands, and Kirstein’s superb at bringing its inherent harshness to life. The tribes that inhabit these prairie like regions that are not exactly human-friendly have a rich culture. Kristein’s intricate details of their daily life and its routines, their society and its hierarchical structure, their modes of communication, their myth and lore, is magnificent in both its breadth and its depth. The plot moves slowly but steadily as the reader comes to know more about these outsiders. It’s also in this second book that the reader comes to have a sure sense of the nature of the magic in this world. Though to be fair, the third the in the series which by the way is VERY WEIRD—enough so that I made it a point to not read it before sleeping—did make me wonder if perhaps there was more going on in this world than what I thought I understood! So, ANYWAY! I’d strongly recommend this series. It’s one of the best SFF that I’ve read in a while.

Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space by Janna Levin: I should mention that one of my dream vacations is camping in the middle of the Atacama Desert in Chile while I gaze my fill at the astounding brilliance of the Milky Way, and make treks to the European Southern Observatory, to peek through their giant telescopes into the vast beauty of our Universe (and if possible wrangle an invitation to the other-wordly and yet so utterly inviting ESO Hotel). This is a compulsively readable account of the events and the characters who shaped the events that led to the discovery of gravitational waves late last year. It’s fascinating because till I started reading it, I realized I too had thought of the stars and the interstellar dust only in terms of the visible and not the auditory.

So that’s it for me! Which books made a strong impression on you in these past few weeks? Would love to know!