Ursua K. LeGuin wrote one of the world’s most beautiful fantasy trilogies: A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan and The Farthest Shore. There is something beautifully elemental about these books: images and writing stripped down to the essentials, sky, water, stone, wind. The writing is spare, minimal, beautiful, deep. Each book stands firmly on its own two feet. The first has a protagonist, the second has a different protagonist, the third has the two come together. There are three separate stories, and an overarching story that the three books tell together. Probably because of the change of protagonist, the middle book does not suffer as many second-of-threes do from being the soggy middle, needed for overall plot development but not very interesting on its own. The Tombs of Atuan is in many ways my very favorite of the three.
Then, I am sorry to say, U.K.LeG., after a span of years, wrote several sequels. They are—how do I say it? They embody important principles of social organization and gender equity. They are politically correct in their explorations of issues of justice. I admire these principles enormously. Unfortunately the novels are lifeless. Character, plot, the beauty of the trilogy’s writing– all sacrificed to the political novel at its worst. With its presentation of alternative worlds and social structures, speculative fiction lends itself especially well to these kinds of explorations, and I highly recommend Octavia Butler and James Tiptree, Jr. for successful novels that incorporate these elements. But not books four and five of the Earthsea trilogy. It just doesn’t work.
I was thinking about this because I recently finished another wonderful fantasy trilogy, Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Fionavar Tapestry: The Summer Tree, The Wandering Fire and The Darkest Road. Kay is a poet and perhaps for this reason his trilogy is lusher, more romantic—there is far more stuff to it than we find in The Earthsea Trilogy, as well as far more characters. He pulls myths from many different traditions into his richly imagined world. I especially enjoyed his beautiful retelling of the story of King Arthur, woven throughout the three books as a subplot.
Every season holds special delights for readers, and here are some favorites for snowy days or long, dark nights. Make a cup of tea, (or the Bookworm snow day fave, hot chocolate) grab something fleecy and your woolliest, silliest socks, and try one of these.
The Lymond Chronicles: Six volumes of Renaissance wit, intrigue, swashbuckling, poetry, magic and romance with chess-themed titles. A marvelously complex hero and a huge cast of fascinating characters including the toddler Mary Queen of Scots. Volume one is good. By two chapters into volume two, I was laughing out loud at the best trick an author has ever played on me, and irrevocably hooked. There’s enough here to savor until spring (if Phil is right).
Zenna Henderson: I have the big Zenna Henderson omnibus reader, as well as those of my paperbacks that have survived the years, moves and lending. Henderson wrote wonderful interrelated stories of good aliens, called The People, who leave their dying planet and come in small lifecraft to the American Southwest. Their stories of reunion, survival and coming of age are completely unique and deserve to be more widely known. Many of Henderson’s stories take place in old mining towns and schoolteachers are often the narrators. One unrelated story is the creepiest tale of OCD ever. Check her out.
Tana French’ s tales of the Dublin murder squad are again loosely interrelated, with a different detective narrating each one, so you can start anywhere. I’m planning to read them in order again, very slowly, and hope that by the time I get to the end there’s a new one!
Garden books: There is a special happiness to be found in reading and dreaming of gardens at a time when no one can possibly expect you to go out and, well, actually work in one. Curl up with a pile of your favorite catalogues. I especially like to pick out all the old roses and peonies that will never make it in my shady yard–in my winter dream graden they thrive! Check out Onward and Upward in the Garden, by Katherine White. Besides being an editor at the New Yorker for many years, and marrying E.B. White, White wrote about gardening and about her garden in Maine. If you can find a copy, Celia Thaxter’s An Island Garden with Childe Hassam’s color illustrations is a wonderful way to pass a winter afternoon.
Trying my hand at the current challenge of posting 7 things about yourself–but making it my reading self (which is after all one of the most important!) Many thanks to Marguerite Ferra for the idea!
1. Sometimes (rarely) I break down and skip to the end to see what happens/whodunit/if my favorite characters survived or got together. And yes, The Deathly Hallows was one of those (rare, I swear!) times.
2. I am hard on books. I try to read during other, incompatible activities like taking baths, doing dishes, cooking and eating ice cream cones. This results in a lot of puffy, ruffly-paged paperbacks. I usually refrain from reading while driving, though.
3. Some of my favorite writers are men, but I am much more likely to buy books by women.
4. I still have all my children’s books from when I was a kid. I still read them. Sometimes I buy them. For myself.
5. I can’t fall asleep without reading first. This seems to be hereditary–my mom couldn’t, my daughter can’t…I picture my long-ago maternal ancestors staring at the cave wall and complaining,”I just feel like there’s something else I should be doing before I fall asleep.” (Stares disconsolately at empty primordial hands).
6. I re-read books over and over again. There are some I read every winter or every summer. Others I read even more often than that.
7. I have been told I “inflict books on people.” (I believe the person who said this was staggering from my house with a pile of my books and fending me off as I tried to add more. Hey, people have different hospitality styles).
The bookwormrrriot blog was an effort to channel #7 into a socially acceptable channel. What are your reading characteristics?
Here are a few fun book ideas for the grownups on your list, along with some books I just think everybody should have. (The motto for the bookwormrrriot blog is “Inflicting books on people since 1981,” so be warned!)
Eat, Drink and Be Merry
The Tummy Trilogy, Calvin Trillin: This book is plain hilarious, interesting, and great for any foodie on your list. I mean, who doesn’t like to eat and/or laugh? (and why are you buying them a Christmas present?). I also like American Stories, a collection of (mostly) more serious pieces Trillin did back in the day, including a magnificent piece on the very young Penn and Teller. My post-Christmas present-to-self is going to be Quite Enough of Calvin Trillin: Forty Years of Funny Stuff. Yes, I love this guy.
Home Cooking, Laurie Colwin: Another great writer, here with essays on food.
There’ll Always Be An England
Your Downton-loving friends are already Janeites and probably have The Forsythe Saga, but they should read Trollope–lots and lots of Trollope. The Warden doesn’t count, for reasons I have explained elsewhere. Give them the Palliser novels as a set if you’re feeling generous, or start them off with The Eustace Diamonds if one book is quite enough, thank you.
Susan Howatch’s books about Church of England clergy are as much (or more) about church politics, sex and family secrets as they are about religion. Oh, and there are contemporary exorcists. There are six in the series,with reappearing characters. As in Trollope, the main character in one tends to turn up as a minor character in another, which I always love–it’s so much like real life. Absolute Truths, Scandalous Risks, Glamorous Powers, Mystical Paths, Ultimate Prizes, Glittering Images. Even the titles are great.
Lark Rise to Candleford, by Laura Thompson, is a gentle but unsparing look at one English village’s daily life in the late nineteenth century. I can’t recommend it enough.
City of Bells and or Pilgims Inn, by Elizabeth Goudge. Books with significant Christmas themes. As mentioned elsewhere, I highly recommend all Goudge’s books, but these are especially seasonal.
Okay, here’s the I-can’t-leave-them-out list: The Makioka Sisters, Junichiro Tanizaki; The Fountain Overflows, Rebecca West; The Lymond Chronicles (6 books) Dorothy Dunnett. Get these for the readers on your list, or put them aside to read yourself under a cozy throw come January. The snow falling, a fire in the fireplace, a nice glass or mug of something and…a new book. Bliss.
It’s Day Four of National Novel Writing Month, and I’m already a couple of thousand words behind where I should be. So this seems like a pretty good time to consider a few small, perfect jewels of short novels.
I know lots of people will object to the idea that any book is “perfect.” In this discussion, I’m using “perfect” to mean a very specific thing:a piece of writing where every detail, even every word, is exactly what the writer intended and contributes to the whole. Nothing missing, nothing unneeded. Poems pretty much have to be perfect, in this definition–a poem that doesn’t meet this standard is simply unfinished (maybe we should kindly say, not yet finished). Many short stories are perfect, by this standard. Hey, I’ve written some myself. Remember, the standard I’ve defined is just that I as the writer feel that everything in the story is exactly as I intended it to be. But a whole novel? Pretty rare.
Of course, since I’m not the author of any of these, I can only say that they seem perfect to me. Not a word out of place, not a wasted image. Small jewels.
So here’s my short list, including one generally considered a short story.
The Member of the Wedding
All of Carson McCuller’ s books were beautiful, and she died too young. This book is vividly alive.
An Episode of Sparrows
I know Rumer Godden actually disliked this book, but I still consider it perfect in its interweaving stories of people trying to bring beauty out of ugliness in the rubble of postwar London.
The Bluest Eye
Toni Morrison’s first novel, the one she wrote on the train commuting to her day job. Amazing.
This one by Annie Proulx is considered a short story, but I contend it’s really the world’s shortest (maybe) novel, in its sweep of time and depth of feeling and characterization.
I’m looking for a show of hands, please: How many readers know that Rumer Godden was a mid-century novelist who also wrote children’s books and memoirs? How many know Bruce Willis and Demi Moore named one of their children after her? Bonus question: who can name a movie based on one of her books?*
Godden wrote wonderful children’s books, most of which feature dolls in one way or another: The Fairy Doll, Mouse House, Miss Happiness and Miss Plum. The Story of Holly And Ivy is a heartwarming and beautifully written Christmas story that makes a nice break from Clement Moore and Dickens at the holidays. My niece loved it so much that a reading in pajamas on Christmas Eve became a family tradition.
Her novels for adults are as sophisticated as her children’s books are simple, with adult plots and great settings. She had her own way of blending a character’s inner thoughts and spoken words seamlessly. Try The Greengage Summer, A Candle for Saint Jude (a lovely, short ballet novel), China Court, The Peacock Spring. She wrote two novels about missionaries who happen to be nuns, or vice versa: Black Narcissus and In This House of Brede. Her novels are set in India, in the South of France, in the English countryside.
She herself was a prolific traveller and moved herself and her children to some amazing (and sometimes terrifying) places, driven by finances and a thirst for adventure. I am not much of a memoir reader, but the book she wrote with her sister, the painter Jon Godden, about their childhood, Two Under the Indian Sun, is considered a classic by many. Some of her other autobiographical books include A House With Four Rooms and Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy.
From her autobiographies, I learned that my very favorite of her novels, An Episode of Sparrows, was her least favorite of her own books. I think it was written during a hard time in her life and therefore was associated with unhappiness in her mind. For me, it is one of the small, nearly perfect novels I treasure (Aha! An idea for another blog post!). As you can gather, Godden was wonderfully prolific, a plus for those of us who like to read our way through all of a writer’s books. Which is your favorite?
*Black Narcissus, Kizzy, Innocent Sinners, In This House of Brede, The River, The Greengage Summer, Tottie.
The British novelist Elizabeth Goudge’ s books are full of magical, beautifully observed settings, memorable characters and amazing occurrences. These are books you want to walk into and shut the door behind you. Who wouldn’t want to live in the beautiful, falling-down medieval inn, The Herb of Grace of the book of the same name, where the children find the mysterious mural in the jam closet..and then there’s the mysterious couple from the houseboat.
But, as always in Goudge’ s books, the biggest drama is deep within the human spirit. The Herb of Grace is part of a trilogy that explores the repercussions of an adulterous relationship on a family and particularly on the two lovers. So while children explore a mythical-feeling forest and a jaded actor creates a deeply-felt Christmas pageant, the real work of the story goes on beneath the surface, a drama of sin, redemption, acceptance, and grace.
A mystical current runs through all of Goudge’ s work, a blend of Anglican mysticism and nature mysticism. She tackles the impossible, over and over again. What does it feel like to give over your life to God, to experience grace, to repent? Whatever your beliefs, it is fascinating to watch someone take on these questions with such imagination and lyricism. Does she succeed? Is success possible when writing about internal spiritual struggles and states? Try one of these and decide for yourself.
The City of Bells
The Herb of Grace (also published as Pilgrim’s Inn), part of The Eliot Family Trilogy
The Dean’s Watch
Green Dolphin Street
Have I mentioned lately that Goudge also wrote J.K. Rowling’ s favorite children’s book, The White Horse? (Yes, I have). Also one of my favorites, Linnets and Valerians. Much of her work is out of print but sometimes I can find something on http://www.powells.com/ or check out her author page on http://www.amazon.com/Elizabeth-Goudge/e/B000APM9OA/ref=sr_tc_2_0?qid=1413125822&sr=8-2-ent
*I’m doing a off-and-on series on forgotten women novelists, of whom Goudge is the first. Stay tuned.