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February Reading List

Right, it’s not February anymore. I didn’t make much time to read in February and hope to do better about that in March, as well as pull in some non-fiction. I may have come to a halt on Le Guin for now, but gorging myself on her books didn’t detract from my enjoyment of any of them.

The Love Wife, Gish Jen
The story of the stresses and delights of a multiracial family when a distant Chinese relative comes to live with them and provide childcare. While the plot itself was engaging, the style was really the high point. Written almost like a screenplay, each major character narrates at various times, often commenting on the narrations of others. It sounds awkward when I describe it, but it was very effective and made me sympathetic to all the characters, which is all the more powerful in a story about conflict and changing self-definition. I very much enjoyed readiing, although the plot doesn’t overlow with joy.

The Telling, Ursula Le Guin
As I said yesterday, this warrants rereading for me and was worth buying too. Relevant and beautiful.

Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town, Cory Doctorow
I really hadn’t liked Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom and here I didn’t think the postmodern magical realism added up to much and didn’t think the revolutionary techgeek subplot worked, but there were moments that were absolutely lovely. Maybe the next Doctorow book will be the one for me, but I have no regrets about reading this. Like The Telling, I found it an inspiring relationship book, although it’s not exactly about good happy-ending-type stories.

The Lathe of Heaven, Ursula Le Guin
I think this is the oldest Le Guin I’ve read, but it didn’t feel particularly dated. I briefly complained about is-she-crazy-or-does-she-have-access-to-another-world stories, but here it’s clearly not an either/or situation. Here it’s a man who’s the protagonist and his dreams can remake the world, which means that no one in that world can be aware of the changes. Maybe I don’t have a problem with stories like that after all.

Tales of Earthsea, Ursula Le Guin
The tales themselves are mixed in depth and context, but all entertaining for fans of Earthsea and they provide support and added explanation for other books without being necessary to understand them.

The Other Wind, Ursula Le Guin
The latest and perhaps last of the Earthsea books brings back characters from all the previous novels (including Tehanu, which I hadn’t yet read) and brings them to satisfying conclusions by having them look death in the face and understand their places in the world as a part of world-building.

Tehanu, Ursula Le Guin
I already knew who Tehanu was and some of her story from reading the sequels first, but I was amazed and delighted to read a book for children in which a character says, appropriately angered, that a child has been raped because sometimes children are raped. There’s so much more to it than that, but the politics impressed me. I should try to write more on this later.

The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan
As long as we run across people saying, “Don’t chicks just naturally like cleaning?” I don’t think this book is outdated yet.


  1. David Golding says:

    What did you think of the final chapter of Tehanu? My feelings are ambiguous still, and can be found here.

    I said last month that Tehanu was the last Earthsea novel, which is how my library’s copy was subtitled, but since then I’ve discovered The Other Wind on the bookshelf of one of my friends! I look forward to that and then picking up the second and third books too.

    — 1 March 2006 at 11:07 pm (Permalink)

  2. Rose says:

    Hmm, David, it’s hard for me to answer that because I didn’t come to the story the way you did but right after reading Tales of Earthsea, where there’s some explanation of the interactions between dragons and humans, and The Other Wind, which is most of all about what becomes of Tehanu. So I went into that earlier book knowing the ending but not the beginning, basically.

    The Tombs of Atuan has Tenar’s life journey to the Archipelago and The Farthest Shore tells how Lebannen became king almost incidentally, so by the time you get back to thinking about the end of Tehanu you’ve got those other characters to consider as well.

    I can’t really disagree with the argument in your post, that it’s sort of saddening to see Tenar, whom we’ve come to care about as such an independent person, settle down with her late husband’s money providing what she needs for her new husband and adopted child because the king allows this. Maybe it’s especially bothersome when she’s just come out of enslavement when she makes these decisions. But because I’ve read the other books, I think there’s more going on than that.

    Earthsea, despite the strong female characters we get to know, is a deeply sexist society. It turns out that there’s no good reason women couldn’t attend the academy and become wizards themselves except that tradition has changed to exclude them, not because witches are intrinsically less apt or powerful. So I see Tenar’s settling down (into both marriages, really) as a way of coming to terms with this sexism and being willing to give things up to have as much of the life she wants as she thinks she can easily get. She’s also come to understand self-sacrifice in its most powerful and positive sense, though perhaps she’s atoning for her youthful selfishness on Atuan too. She takes in Tehanu because someone needs to, because it’s the right thing to do, but also to make an unstated point about the people who aren’t willing (as opposed to unable, like her friend who has many children already and yet would still have considered it) to make such a sacrifice. These aren’t the sort of people who would molest a young child and throw her into the fire, but they’re not necessarily blameless either. They’re part of a culture where women and children now can’t walk safely alone, and cultural change happens when those not punished by the inequity are willing to change it. Earthsea isn’t yet at that point.

    Also this isn’t a traditional family: a burned, dragony child, the father a depowered mage who was once most powerful of all, the mother formerly something akin to a god. It could look like the now-powerless parents are putting too much hope and pressure on the nascent power of their child, but I trust Tenar and Ged and don’t think that’s what’s going on. I think they understand being different, Ged scarred himself and now an outcast among mages, Tenar far away from the rejected culture of her birth. Even the king became part of this story because in a moment of panic Tenar mistook him for her son, and he ended up sort of becoming a son to her, a grown son who wants to support his mother and protect Ged, who had been the instrumental figure in his maturation.

    I’m not sure where I’m going with this, really. I think at this point in the larger story the boundaries between human and dragon happenings are muddy and hard for humans to understand, but it’s not a question of evil being vanquished because the world isn’t safe or fair. Tehanu has been able to bring about a role reversal of sorts, saving her mother from abuse by means of a fiery dragon long after Tenar had saved her from abuse and fire by accepting and loving even the “monstrous” parts of her. The little tree dies because some trees die and some children are raped and basically no parents can keep all their promises. It’s a broken world, but one way to address that is to make your own family from broken pieces and see what kind of whole that makes. It may not be a big, exciting heroic life (though it turns out of course that these characters still have world-changing roles to play) but it’s life and on their chosen terms as much as possible, and I do think that’s something.

    — 2 March 2006 at 7:38 am (Permalink)

  3. David Golding says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful reply.

    I guess I’m a little bit suspicious - the little tree may die because some trees die, but Tehanu’s monstrousness in the eyes of Earthsea is transmuted into literal monstrousness by the fantasy story.

    But perhaps as there is no pat resolution to their lives in the novel, I shouldn’t be too harsh on their defeat of the dark power. I guess that fantasy solution makes me sad in the same way the realistic solution of Dune makes me sad, when Paul cannot avoid jihad… I wish there was a fantasy-real progressive solution, but the world remains unfair, and stories cannot change that. Perhaps I should welcome what kindness Le Guin can give, as in Animal Man.

    — 2 March 2006 at 8:19 pm (Permalink)

  4. Rose says:

    Is it really so monstrous to be a dragon, though, if being a dragon means only that you save your foster parents from unjust slavery? Are the alienation and ostracism being a dragon brings really that much worse than those that go along with being storied and visibly handicapped in the ways Tehanu is in her little village? I thought the book was about the possibility humans have to choose not to be monstrous to one another, and maybe being a dragon is sometimes a way to do that.

    Usually we have a pro-spoiler policy here but I’ve been deliberately not saying too much about The Other Wind since you have plans to read it. I do think it changes my reading of Tehanu because I know that the world gets bigger than this one little town and I know that there’s a larger debate about whether dragons are indeed a threat and if so whether they surpass the danger posed by the white human Kargs, also going through a time of political upheaval.

    I’d say all the books in the series are coming-of-age stories about the young protagonists being outcasts whose situations keep them from fitting in and how they learn to become part of a new culture by integrating parts of themselves into the knowledge they’ve gained. I saw the ending of Tehanu as part of that tradition, but it was still troubling for being both too real and too pat. I think I gave in to my internal objections mostly because I couldn’t see a better resolution and because I knew already that this wasn’t fully the end. You don’t have that luxury, and I think you have good reasons for your uneasiness.

    — 2 March 2006 at 9:18 pm (Permalink)

  5. David Golding says:

    Sorry, I’m a little clumsy in communicating, possibly because my thoughts are always so elusive. I’m not sure what I mean. It’s a feeling. Being revealed as a dragon validates the townsfolks fear? Or it transforms Tehanu’s rape from just something that happens into part of the fantasy arc - rape empowers her? She becomes glorified because of her wounds? She can’t just be a wounded survivor? But that’s putting it too strongly, and I’m possibly reading this completely wrong, or just not thinking things through. It’s only a feeling.

    But I like what you say, and I must reread the end, and read The Other Wind soon.

    — 2 March 2006 at 9:58 pm (Permalink)

  6. Rose says:

    Well, all of the above? None? I’m not sure there is an arc, and maybe that’s the way to put it. It’s more like life than like story. She is still a wounded survivor. She is something the townspeople should fear, perhaps, but they fear her for the wrong reasons, like the way they feared the evil mage for being a mage without recognizing the wickedness of his powers. People tend to be willfully ignorant, to see what they want to see. All of the Earthsea books are about learning to avoid that, which I think is part of the insistence on true names.

    I think there are implications that Tehanu’s rape and burning were a result of her having been recognized as “Other” in a dragony way even though the story itself is clear that just being a woman (or child of any gender?) would be reason enough for her to be battered and punished the way her mother was. Tehanu can’t be just a wounded survivor because she isn’t just that, she’s this dragon thing too and that’s a separate issue. There’s always more to us than our easy defining terms, maybe?

    I’m not sure what else to say except that even though I knew what was coming in a larger sense, I too was baffled and blindsided by the way the final part of the book was resolved, the hazy hurry of it all. I should really reread it because I had a feeling it was sort of focalized from Tehanu’s perspective as she came into this dragon persona, flexing muscles she hadn’t known she had, speaking in an alien tongue. But maybe tomorrow I’ll have better things to say that are actually informed by the text!

    And by the way, David, thanks for encouraging me to read this one. I might not have pursued it after it wasn’t on the library shelf if you hadn’t mentioned it in your earlier comments.

    — 2 March 2006 at 10:18 pm (Permalink)

  7. David Golding says:

    Thank you for taking the time to write your responses! I’ve since (two months later) read The Other Wind, The Tombs of Atuan, and revisited Tehanu. I’ve written a little bit on my blog about that, but mainly just pointing to your great comments.

    — 4 May 2006 at 2:10 am (Permalink)