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!

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.

Nooks & Crannies: The Fall Version

Autumn ReadsIt’s been a while since I finished Guy Gavirel Kay’s A Song for Arbonne but for some reason I haven’t particularly felt like writing about it. And then I started feeling that till I reviewed that book I couldn’t read or write anything else—which is just stupid.

I have been reading of course.

Let me start with Patricia Wrede’s Cecilia and Sorcery book 3—a fun and fluffy read that while I enjoyed was also slightly contrived in its plotting in my opinion. I will probably read Miss Wrede’s other books when I’m in the mood for some light historical fantasy.

Then there is Jess Walter’s The Financial Live of the Poets that is quite simply howlarious. I’m about 40% of my way through and have been reading it on the Oyster app that has a lovely interface but that I haven’t found myself using a lot. The app has an instant gratification component to it in that I can start reading any book that I want the very moment I want but I would much prefer a Kindle to Oyster for that. At least the Kindle will let me highlight the text. Plus, Kindle has a bigger screen and feels easier on the eyes. So what exactly is Oyster’s place in it all? What niche, if any, does it cater to amongst the public libraries, Kindles and Overdrives of the world? Perhaps it’s of particular use while commuting? But a Kindle or an e-book reader would do as well as Oyster for that. Not something I am particularly keen to think through right now but I definitely don’t see a defining need for Oyster. I also seem to have discovered a new love for paper books with the New York Public Library. (Perhaps, Oyster would be good for markets that do not have comprehensive library systems? Oyster should certainly look at international markets for that!)

I also finally found my way to Ursula K. Le Guin, starting with A Wizard of Earthsea. Oh what a lovely person she is! I loved that Ged’s quest is more about finding himself (something that I suspected early on) than about a fight between good vs. evil. I would love to recommend this book to my youngster friends and have already put a hold on book 2!

The past month has also seen me letting go of books while half-way through. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek had to be returned to the library since someone else had it on hold. I found it a difficult book to start with but once I got in the flow I found it to be a strangely liberating read—there is something compelling and freeing about a life lived only in contemplation of nature. I could read only a few pages at a time—my preferred reading time was right before I fell asleep—and yet it was an immensely relaxing and peaceful experience.

Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead is another book that I found myself enjoying and yet one more book that I could not hurry through. It’s a text that demands a slowing down and falling in rhythm with its cadence to get its full flavor. And then I left it at a friend’s place while visiting and by the time I receive it, it has to be returned. Gilead has so many lovely bits:

Sometimes I have loved the peacefulness of an ordinary Sunday. It is like standing in a newly planted garden after a warm rain. You can feel the silent and invisible life. All it needs from you is that you take care not to trample on it.

and

There is a reality in blessing, which I take baptism to be primarily. It doesn’t enhance sacredness, but it acknowledges it, and there is power in that I have felt it pass through me, so to speak. The sensation is of really knowing a creature, I mean really feeling its mysterious life and your own mysterious life at the same time. . . . Not that you have to be a minister to confer the blessing. You are simply much more likely to find yourself in that position. It’s a thing people expect of you.

Parnassus on Wheels is one more book that I’m reading on Oyster—I love the Professor and find myself grinning through his impassioned speeches about ‘the Good’ that books can do! To use a cliché: It’s a delightful romp!

October is such a beautiful month for reading. I’m loving the mantle of chilly weather that’s slowly settling over the northern hemisphere and find myself in a contemplative mood. I was reading about Miss K. Le Guin and also Margaret Atwood (whose Oryx trilogy is now on my TBR pile after seeing her live in a discussion with Carl Hiassen—she is so graceful and wise and erudite) and one thing that struck me about both Miss Atwood and Miss K. Le Guin is their reflective nature.

It’s as if in the allowing of your thoughts and your encounters and your musings to sort of seep through and settle in your experiences become a fertile ground for your writing. I find this fascinating because I’ve always felt that the only stories I would ever write are the ones I dream about (yep, I’ve dreamt stories and while dreaming also thought that hey, this would make a jolly good tale).

On another note, I’ve been contemplating issues of identity. There was an article in NY Times a while back about the “opt-out” generation, a generation of highly successful women in high-powered jobs who left it all to take care of their kids and who for various reasons found themselves returning to the workforce and subsequently found that they had to start at levels that were sadly nowhere near where they had left. There’s a lot to unpack there but the thing that struck me the most was how much each woman’s identity stemmed from what she had done i.e. her work persona. I think this is true for either of the sexes and I have this at the back of my mind as I embark upon Rosalind Miles’s The Women’s History of the World. I’m looking forward to seeing the identities that women have forged for themselves over the course of the last few centuries.

photo credit: dbtelford via photopin cc