One of the things I told you I was looking forward to in the U.S. was unlimited books in English. I spent the first couple of weeks reading books off the shelves at my in-laws’ house. But my voracious (and long-suppressed) literary appetite soon called for more drastic measures; i.e. the public library. The first time we went, I made sure to bring my two pieces of mail with my address on them, but forgot my driver’s license, and was thus unable to get a library card. Fortunately, Grammy had brought hers, and lent it to us. Between the three of us (Axa, Raj, and I), we were with difficulty able to limit ourselves to the thirty books allowed at a time.
After monitoring their selections for twaddle, I picked out a pretty eclectic selection for myself, including both fiction and non-fiction. The ones I read first all fell in the same genre, though. Since childhood, I’ve had a penchant for fantasy. It began, of course, in Middle Earth and Narnia, both of which I visited regularly and passionately, first as read-alouds, and then on my own. The old fort-on-stilts in my parents’ backyard, which I’m looking out on as I type this, was originally christened Minas Tirith. Since then, although Tolkien remains my eternal standard, I’ve learned to appreciate at least a few more authors whose fantasy is sufficiently literary to please my aesthetic sense as well as my escapist tendency.
First of these is Patricia McKillip, whose veiled, elegant prose avoids the temptation to which many fantasy authors succumb, of pedantically explaining the way things work in their created worlds. Every word in her books casts multiple bright shadows of meaning, drawing the reader irresistibly into a world that seems, like Tolkien’s, to exist independently, and inevitably. McKillip has an unerring aesthetic sense that extends even to the shape, size, typeface, and luminous cover-art of her beautiful novels. In Alphabet of Thorn, an obsession with translating an ancient manuscript leads Nepenthe into a three-thousand-year old mystery that has disturbing implications for her own world and herself. Absolutely magical. A book to linger over and enjoy.
Ursula LeGuin is another of my favorite fantasy authors. Her classic novel, The Left Hand of Darkness, is a masterful and inventive exposition of anthropologic, political, and human themes. My library had quite a few of her works on the shelves, and I picked a few that I hadn’t read, more or less at random.
The Compass Rose is a 1982 collection of short stories. Although of somewhat uneven quality, the stories demonstrate LeGuin’s wide artistic range. I particularly enjoyed ‘The Author of the Acacia Seeds,’ a treatise on civil disobedience among ants, ‘The First Report of the Shipwrecked Foreigner to the Kadanh of Derb,’ a description of the city of Venice to an alien, and ‘The Eye Altering,’ which poetically describes the adaptation of a colony of earthlings to life on a desolate alien planet. With her unusual flexibility in point-of-view, Ursula LeGuin describes better than any author I know the expat experience of feeling truly “alien.”
Frankly, Malafrena didn’t do much for me. As a fantasy/scifi author, this book was an interesting undertaking for LeGuin, since it reads more like historical fiction. The setting is an imaginary country named Orsinia, supposedly part of the Austro-Hungarian empire in the early 19th century. I read a lot of (real) 19th century literature, so I ought to have enjoyed this book. But I just didn’t really like or identify with any of the characters, and thought the ending was a huge anti-climax. The only thing I liked about the book was the wrenchingly beautiful descriptions of a part of Orsinia that sounds very much like Piedmont. In fact, she even has a Piedmontese character who is reminded of his native land by the landscape of Malafrena. Both he and I spent much of the book homesick for the mountains and farms of that most beautiful corner of Italy.
Lavinia, on the other hand, was amazing. I could not put it down. This might be influenced by the fact that after living in Tunisia (home of the unhappy Dido) I am mildly-to-moderately obsessed with the Aeneid. But Dido makes no appearance in this book. Instead, it is the story of Lavinia, Aeneas’ Italian bride, who receives only a few lines from Virgil. LeGuin’s Lavinia is a beautiful character, with a strong but gentle character and complex sense of duty. I love LeGuin’s substitution of a simple religion of the earth and hearth for Virgil’s Greco-Roman deities. And I was as smitten as Lavinia by her larger-than-life but very human Aeneas. It was a little weird how the character of Lavinia is aware of the contingency of her existence on Virgil’s poem, but the parts where she meets and talks with the poet were some of my favorites in the novel. I recommend this book unreservedly, whether you’ve read the Aeneid or not.
Finally, here at my parents’ house I came across a copy of Spindle’s End, Robin McKinley’s retelling of Sleeping Beauty, which I’ve been more-or-less meaning to read for several years. McKinley’s Beauty: A Retelling of Beauty and the Beast, was one of my favorite books as a child. I also adored her Newberry-honored The Blue Sword, and its prequel, The Hero and the Crown. I don’t know what has happened to her in the intervening years, but Spindle’s End was atrocious. I couldn’t believe the silliness of most of the details, nor how much time she spent explaining all those silly details. I think the climax was intended to be mystical and heart-pounding, but by the end, I was just so happy to be done with the book I didn’t care how it ended (which at least it finally did, even more ridiculously than it had begun). Not a keeper.