A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula LeGuin

I think I first read A Wizard of Earthsea when I was 9 or 10. I got bit by the fantasy bug bad when I was a kid, reading Tolkien and CS Lewis at a very young age. I was hungry for more books with wizards in them–even books by Bellairs, more horror than fantasy, but still had the whiff of magic about them.

To say I loved A Wizard of Earthsea might be overstating it, but it definitely smacked of what Lewis called the “numinous”. It seemed to glint and sparkle with a light unseen, hinting at hidden depths and deeper secrets. Much like the way Gandalph seemed foolish and wise at the same time, hinting at some holy power.

I don’t reread books much. Life’s short, you know? But my kids are about the age I was when I read it and it got me thinking about it. So I picked it up for them and then ended up reading it myself.

It holds up. I’d easily recommend it to an adult reader. There are subtleties to it that I know I missed as a child. But the friendship between Ged and Vetch still resonated powerfully with me, much as it did when I was a child when I longed for close friends like that. Now, as an adult, that I have those close and longstanding friendships, I can think fondly of my past self who got this thing so right. Ged is such a solitary creature, but he really comes alive from the light of his friend, like a sunflower turning its face to the sun.

I bounced off Tombs of Atuan pretty hard. It wasn’t the epic wizard tale I was looking for. Ged doesn’t even show up until halfway into the book! Took me a couple years and a couple tries before I finished it and the sheer obstinacy of youth. I’m looking forward to rereading it more than I did its prequel, though.

I once met Ursula LeGuin at Powell’s Books here in Portland. She read from a new book of short stories. I was enthralled. In the signing line, I stuttered and stammered over my enthusiasm and she said something short and wry and scowled at me in a not totally unfriendly way. It didn’t do anything to dampen my enthusiasm, and may actually have deepened it. I went on to read most of her other books. If you haven’t, I’d recommend doing so.

I don’t think you’ll regret it.

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Had a dream the other night that I’d lost my wallet. I wasn’t too upset about it, because I knew I was dreaming. Still, I went searching for my wallet anyway. For some reason, I went searching for my wallet in the forest. It wasn’t there, so I went home. My home was different than it usually is. I woke up a little later.

My son is obsessed with the idea that he can’t remember his dreams.

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Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West

I don’t think I’m exaggerating to say that Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West is one of the best books I’ve ever read–and I’ve read a few of them. The writing in this book is so exquisite that I often had to set the book down. At one point, I shouted after reading something so profound. This book was so incredible, to me, that I almost don’t even know what to write about it.

Have you ever read a book by a dead author and mourned their death, because there’s not even the slightest change that you would ever get to meet them? For me, Rebecca West is one of those writers. 

So what’s it all about? It’s a 1930s travelogue of the Balkans. It sounds fairly innocuous, but when reading this book I felt like I was peering into the secret history of the world (or at least the European portion of it). When King Alexander of Yugoslavia was assassinated in Marseille, France (an event I’d never read about!) Rebecca West decided that she would travel to the Balkans for the express purpose of trying to understand why this region of the world kept setting Europe on fire and why, she correctly intuited, it would do so again. I think she succeeded.

Why did World War I start? The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand is the first thing that springs to my mind. I know there were other things too, but the why of that event never went deep enough for in explaining how that event caused the human abattoir of that War to End All Wars. Now, I feel like I understand it in my bones. I feel like understand, emotionally, how and why that thing happened and how it fed into the bloody massacres that followed, the ones we’re all still reeling from, even though we don’t quite realize it. It wasn’t a quick process. I had to read ~1100 pages to get there.

But okay, you may be thinking, What’s the big deal here? You understand how and why WWI started. Is that really worth all the time and energy you put into this?

Yes.

I don’t know, you kind of have to take my word for it. I’m still struggling to fit this book into my brain. I’m not sure I ever will. It’s one of those books I was tempted to start re-reading as soon as I’d finished it.

Check it out. I don’t think you’ll regret it.

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Like nothing so much as tossing a pebble in the ocean…

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The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt

(Warning! No actual samurai appear in this book, unless you count the film samurai from the movie Seven Samurai, who do.)

As my old friend Eric wrote, this book is a “Stone cold masterpiece”. I whole-heartedly agree. Seriously, this book is really great. I can’t say enough great things about it. It’s funny and moving and clever and is probably one of the most insightful novels written about fathers and sons and mothers and sons and children and parents generally. It’s got a lot on education and human potential and it makes it seem like learning languages is not so hard. (I found learning languages extremely difficult, but maybe I just didn’t think of it the right way.) Also, it made me want to watch Seven Samurai again.

A book that’s very much worth reading. You won’t regret it.

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Women & Power: A Manifesto by Mary Beard

This book is much shorter than I expected, but then it is a couple of lectures that have been turned into essays. The essays are quite smart and highlighted some things I’d certainly never considered.

The first essay begins by focusing on a scene I’d never given much thought to: in the Odyssey, Odysseus’ house is filled with suitors who want to marry Penelope, the assumed widow. A bard starts playing a sad song about all the men who went away to Troy and died. Penelope is overwrought with sorrow and asks the bard to sing a different tune. Telemachus rebukes her and tells her, basically, go do a bunch of womanly things, public speech is men’s work and I’m in charge here! Beard then goes on to draw parallels between that scene and other pieces from art, history, and literature from then to the present day.

The second essay is more about the ways that women are permitted (or not) to engage in the political sphere. She makes a compelling case that, even though we may not consider it, art and literature from the Ancient Greek and Roman worlds cast a long shadow that influences us still today. (For example, the imagery of Medusa as it’s been used through time.)

The only quibble I’d have with the book is that it’s not a manifesto. Beard has no call to action, no ideas for what to do. That being said, I think she’s doing a valuable service raising these parallels between the culture of antiquity and that of the present. Check it out! It’s a quick read.

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Another Country by James Baldwin

I finished this book last week, but I’m still not quite sure what to say about it. It’s so beautifully written. The internal lives of its characters are almost too rich to fathom. When reading, it was impossible not to feel Baldwin’s constant presence. In a similar way, the novel is haunted by Rufus, a black musician who falls into such despair that he jumps off a bridge early in the story. (It was only later that I read an interview with James Baldwin and he mentioned a friend of his who killed himself by jumping off a bridge.) It’s a book that captures a very specific time and place (New York city in the 1960s) but that feels infinite in its scope–infinite in the microscopic sense, there’s always deeper and smaller to go. I can’t think of another book that captures how fraught with danger (emotionally, physically, spiritually) sex can be between human beings. Or even just a seemingly casual conversation. The kind of book that sort of makes me want to go shut myself away from other people and just read books forever. Also, there’s a party scene in this book with publishing elites that made me infinitely glad that I’ve always lived on the West coast. It’s an amazing book, but I think I got a bit more out of Go Tell it on the Mountain and The Fire Next Time.

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Heretics! The Wondrous (and Dangerous) Beginnings of Modern Philosophy by Steven Nadler

Did you ever wonder what was all the fuss about people like Leibniz, Locke, Spinoza, but couldn’t get past the mountains of pages? Never fear! This comic book provides an entertaining summary and historical context for some of the most influential thinkers of the 17th century. Seriously, they should probably give this book to college freshmen. The art’s a lot of fun too.

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Batman: The Wrath by Tony Bedard

It’s a Batman story from the 80s! The Wrath is an obscure Batman villain who has an identical origin story, only its a cop who kills his (criminal) parents. This comic is kind of weird and delightful as only Batman stories can be. I finally read it because I’d renewed it 26 times from the library. That seemed like enough, so I decided to finally read it. It was an easier read than this James Baldwin book I’m trying to read for my book club. James Baldwin is an amazing writer, but he’s tough to read when kids are bouncing around the house.

Anyway, Batman: The Wrath. I have no idea why I checked it out. I probably read about it online somewhere or heard about it on some podcast. It was pretty good. The art definitely felt like 80s Batman art, but it works. They were definitely going for a grittier, edgier kind of thing. Maybe this was a deliberate Batman, house-style kind of thing?

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Mother Panic: Under Her Skin (v2) by Jody Houser

I’m digging this alternate take on the Batman thing. Instead of rich, Gotham socialite Bruce Wayne dressing up like a bat and flitting around town, we’ve got rich, Gotham socialite Violet Paige dressing up in a stark, white outfit (it doesn’t seem to have an animal theme to it) and tromping around town. It’s super dark, but no more than many Batman stories I’ve read. I liked it well enough to read the second collection. It’s good to see an alternate take on the whole Gotham-city vigilante thing. I hope it is a nice long run. I dig some of the art a lot, some of the art a bit less, but the writing is solid.

If you like Batman, give it a go.

It’s part of Gerard Way’s DC Comics Young Animal imprint. I’ve been impressed with the stuff they’ve been doing, including Shade, the Changing Girl and a new Doom Patrol run.

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