Ali Baba pots

Chris and I had notorious bad luck when it came to museums in Cyprus. Every time we went to one, it was closed. So we did a lot of wandering around and sitting in caf├ęs instead. Most of my photos, as a result, are somewhat random. For instance:

Why not clamber on top of a huge Ali Baba jar? Chris reluctantly took this photo of me. She said that if I were one of her students I’d so be in trouble right then. I wanted to climb inside, but, well, even this was a bit too precarious… Continue reading

City of Illusions

CityofIllusionsUrsula K. Le Guin favors the motif of the solitary journey. I usually call it the ‘turn’ of the story for lack of a better name; usually about two-thirds into the novel the main character goes on a journey, usually alone, even if he or she encounters other people along the way. There is only one novel I have read by Le Guin so far that does not follow this pattern. It happens often enough that I was surprised to find that in City of Illusions, Falk embarks on his journey in the second chapter.

I was not expecting to like City of Illusions as much as a I did. Yes, Le Guin is one of my all-time favorite authors, but her short novels tend to be not as good as her short stories or her longer novels, and so I came to City of Illusions with lower expectations. Usually the short novels are too short for her to really flesh out the world, and so it is more that she is exploring a certain idea than anything else, which, once you understand that, is perfectly okay. However, my copy of City of Illusions is deceptively small and it was not until I opened it and saw the teeny tiny print that I realized this was going to be a longer book than I thought it would be.

Falk is a man without a past, found in the wilderness by a forest tribe in the far-distant future on a post-apocalyptic Earth. Having no memory of who he is or even of language, the tribe takes him in and raises him as one of their own, for he is a man in all outward appearances but one, his yellow eyes, and because the prevailing Law on Earth is ‘Do not take life.’ Six years later, he leaves his adopted family and his home to seek out the one remaining city on Earth, Es Toch, also called the City of the Lie. It is a journey that will take him across a continent, to the end of the forest, across plains, deserts, and mountains, encountering all sorts of odd and bizarre people and beasts along the way. He goes in search of his name, his real name, and it is not what you expect. By happy circumstance, I happened to read Planet of Exile before reading City of Illusions—while both books can be read on their own, there is a connection between the two, and I was glad to see it when it appeared.

As usual, Le Guin’s prose does not disappoint:

Hope is a slighter, tougher thing even than trust, he thought, pacing his room as the soundless, vague lightning flashed overhead. In a good season one trusts life; in a bad season one only hopes. But they are of the same essence: they are the mind’s indispensable relationship with other minds, with the world, and with time. Without trust, a man lives, but not a human life; without hope, he dies. When there is no relationship, where hands to not touch, emotion atrophies in void and intelligence goes sterile and obsessed.

I have but one more Le Guin book in my meager library (three boxes, but who’s counting?). Once I lift my embargo on buying more books, I think some more books by Le Guin will be in order.

Fly me to the moon

dispossessedLast night I finished rereading my favorite book (beside The Sparrow) by my favorite author: The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin.1 Kelly cited the Heresy of Paraphrase, and yet I may prove my inadequacy by trying to actually talk about this book. Here are two worlds, Urras and Anarres, each the other’s moon, and are quite literally worlds apart. Urras is like Earth: rich, plentiful, abundant, ruled by warring States and competing forms of captialism and socialism. Anarres is a desert, harsh; an anarchy. It is about a temporal physicist who must travel from world to the next, weaving in and out of time and philosophy with lyric grace. It is impossible to summarize The Dispossessed beyond this.

The idea, ideal, represented by Anarres appeals to me tremendously. Human brotherhood, solidarity, serving no master but being a member of a living social organism, willingly doing what is necessary to sustain that organism. It is difficult to explain. Granted, Anarres is able to exist because it exists in a vacuum. There are no other nations on Anarres; its two-million population must cooperate to ensure basic survival. There are no luxuries on Anarres. Nothing is owned, all is shared. The settlers came with nearly nothing. They created an entirely new language. All ties with the old world were severed. Anarres really is the great experiment.

Le Guin is not a Christian, but in many ways, these anarchists have more in common with the early church in Acts 2 than we do today. Community, sharing. It is reflected even in their speech: consider a three-year old saying, “You may share the hankerchief I use.” If not that, then the proverb “Excess is excrement” should challenge any Christian living in our materialistic world.

There are far too many passages I would want to quote, not to mention the abundance of perfect sentences, but I shall only quote one:

You write music! Music is a cooperative art, organic by definition, social. It may be the noblest form of social behavior we’re capable of. It’s certainly one of the noblest jobs an individual can undertake. And by its nature, by the nature of any art, it’s a sharing. The artist shares, it’s the essence of his act.

Nay, I shall quote two:

For we each of us deserve everything, every luxury that was ever piled in the tombs of the dead kings, and we each of us deserve nothing, not a mouthful of bread in hunger. Have we not eaten while another starved? Will you punish us for that? Will you reward us for the virtue of starving while others ate? No man earns punishment, no man earns reward. Free your mind of the idea of deserving, the idea of earning, and you will begin to be able to think.

Finally, my friends in the States, you have Le Guin to thank that I shall not be an ex-pat forever. Twice now she has convinced me that

True voyage is return.2

1 Unfortunately the Perennial Classics edition is riddled with typographical errors. The Dispossessed is available online and appears to be a cleaner copy.

2 Some thoughts on “True voyage is return” after I read The Dispossessed a year ago.

Monday ramblings

After spending the entire day reading in Middle English, it’s no wonder that when I come home from the office I blast Benny Goodman or the Andrews Sisters and collapse on my bed for a few minutes before going to make dinner and watch an episode of Star Trek: The Original Series. No, right now I don’t really care if my neighbors don’t like jazz. Yes, I’m aware that the Parson would say my sin is pride.

I finished The Cloud of Unknowing today. Cloud is a work of medieval apophatic theology, or negative theology, meaning that you gain understanding of God through negation. That’s the easiest way to explain it, even if it’s not entirely accurate. The goal is to clear your mind completely, to separate yourself from everything else in the world, to separate body from spirit. Between you and God will always exist a cloud of darkness, the cloud of unknowing, but by separating yourself from everything else with the cloud of forgetting you are as close to God as you can get whilst living on this earth. There’s also a whole lot on how to get to that state, and how to fend off distractions when you’re in that state, and digressions on the various aspects of the active and the contemplative lives. ‘Fascinating,’ as Spock would say.

Ian said reading Cloud would change my life. Honestly, I think I was too annoyed by a variety of factors to really enjoy it as much as I wanted to. The idea of approaching God with a clear mind and centering one’s meditation on a single word (ie, ‘love’ or ‘God’) is a practice I am already familiar with. Actually, I was intrigued by how much the Cloud author sounded like some Zen writings I’ve read.

I want to reread Cloud sometime this summer, perhaps in a modern translation or a different edition if I can find one. It seems like something I would enjoy if I were in the right frame of mind. There is much to be learned from this book, if only from this line:

It is not what you are nor what you have been that God sees with his all-merciful eyes, but what you desire to be.

In other news, I have been rereading The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin. More once I’ve finished it. For now, just know that I love Le Guin, I love The Dispossessed, and that reading it has been helping “Masterpiece” tremendously. Amazing how much temporal physics has in common with classical piano.

On a similar note: I may or may not have a tab open in Firefox to the Creative Writing PhD at the University. My supervisor wants me to answer, “Why is studying vernacular theology in medieval drama important?” and trying to answer that has me terrified. I don’t think my supervisors will like the idea that I’m doing academia as a day job so that I can write science fiction and fantasy, so the creative part of me says, “So why can’t I be the day job?” I most likely will feel less terrified once I have a better idea of where this dissertation is going. Finding alternatives is one of my ways of coping… I just don’t know if they approve of genre writing.

Going to Oxford in a few weeks. Getting out of Town will do me a load of good.

I’m going to go read about an anarchist temporal physicist now.

Compass Rose

It’s all about contributing to the metanarrative of humanity! Ahem.

* ….* ….*

CompassRoseWhen I’m busy with school and don’t have time to invest in reading a novel, or when I’m between novels, I read short stories. The past few months I’ve been working through the twenty-story collection in Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Compass Rose: Stories. These stories are unrelated and grouped arbitrarily into the cardinal points of the compass rose. This is the third anthology I’ve read by Le Guin thus far, and I still hold to the belief that The Wind’s Twelve Quarters is her best, but that is not to say that The Compass Rose is without its gems. The collection opens with “The Author of the Acacia Seeds, and other extracts from the Journal of the Association of Therolinguistics,” a delightful mock academic journal from sometime in the future when we have begun to understand the languages of the animals around us. Another linguistic exercise is in “Mazes,” as a lab mouse attempts to communicate with its human captor. “The Pathways of Desire” takes us to the familiar universe of the Ekumen, but as the scientists wonder at the simplistic human society in the seemingly perfect paradise they’ve come across, they discover that they may be closer to Earth than they thought. “The Wife’s Story” is a werewolf story with a twist and “Some Approaches to the Problem of the Shortage of Time” is another faux-academic exercise. “The New Atlantis” and “The Diary of the Rose” are glimpses into dystopias that leave the reader puzzled, in a good way. For fans of Orsinia, “Two Delays on the Northern Line” is another story set in that fictional country, and “The Eye Altering” and “Gwilan’s Harp” may be two other stories set in the Ekumen universe, though I admit, the Ekumen has undefined edges, and these stories may be unrelated to it entirely.

I have four more of Le Guin’s anthologies to read (that I know of), but my next short story collection is going to be The Ladies of Grace Adieu: and other stories by Susanna Clarke. But, er, in the meantime, I’ll be working on Bede.

842 pages

It has happened three times to my recollection, and twice this past weekend, that I have begun and finished a book exactly within the bounds of my journey from when I arrived in the airport to when I walked out of it.

bel-cantoAfter reading Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, I now understand Stockholm Syndrome. While the phenomenon of forming an attachment with one’s captor still disturbs me, it is now easier to see how it can develop, and as I read Bel Canto, how one can even encourage it to happen. As terrorists interrupt an overblown birthday party in the Vice President’s home of an unnamed Latin American country—easily imagined as Guatemala or Colombia—Patchett unfolds the captivity, and each character, with such subtle grace that the relationships built between characters are entirely believable. Music and language serve not only as the backdrop to Bel Canto, but are intimately intwined with the siege. Without either the opera singer Roxanne Coss or the translator Gen Watanabe, the captivity would have been unimaginably different. And it is with this realization that the epilogue—one of the few epilogues of which I actually approve—clicks into place. My mind will definitely be turning on Bel Canto for days to come. Many thanks to Kelly, for sending me a copy.

remembering-babylonFor some months now, actually about a year, I have had a growing latent interest in the history of Australia. When Chris said I should read Remembering Babylon, which she had brought with her on our trip to Lisbon, I readily agreed. David Malouf is a Booker prize nominee, and authors associated with the Booker prize have yet to disappoint me. Set in the early years of British colonization of Australia, Remembering Babylon is about the events set in motion when Gemmy Fairley, a “white black man,” returns to white civilization after living with aborigines for 16 years. Gemmy disturbs the status quo with his presence, and his very existence disturbs further the settlers’ concept of inherent ‘civility’ in whites. Less a story about Gemmy, and more about the community as a whole, Remembering Babylon explores the community’s reaction to Gemmy, and in the process reveals how each of them came to be in Australia. It was especially enjoyable to read as the family Gemmy stayed with was Scottish, and their reminisces of Scotland most poignant.

handmaids-taleThe dystopia presented in The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood was closer to our world than I had expected it to be; indeed it could have happened today. I was intrigued by the mental intertextuality that occurred as I read: Earth’s history in Le Guin’s Ekumen cycle, 1984, V for Vendetta, “Sexy” by Jhumpa Lahiri, and as of yet unpublished short stories “The Initiate” (Kelly) and “The Six Days of Creation” (Laura). I was both intrigued and horrified at the society ultra-fundamentalist Christians made in Gilead; I knew all of the passages they used to justify themselves, taken out of context, overlooking others… I’m not sure what they would have done with me. I have mixed feelings about the concluding “Historical Notes.” The fictional notes forced me away from the narrative and to take a critical eye not unlike what I do with medieval texts, and to think of the narrative in past tense. While the investigation as to whether the Commander was Frederick R. Waterford or B. Frederick Judd is fascinating—a form of mental acrobatics similar to “The Author of the Acacia Seeds” by Le Guin—it was enough, for me, that he was simply the Commander. I did not need the “Historical Notes” to appreciate and analyze The Handmaid’s Tale. Regardless of the “Historical Notes,” however, I thoroughly enjoyed The Handmaid’s Tale, and, as perhaps my lack of a coherent synopsis gives evidence to, my mind is still processing all that Offred experienced.

Pictures and summary of Lisbon are forthcoming.

My first love

While looking up articles on monsters in Beowulf on JSTOR, I saw that there is a journal called Science Fiction Studies. Intrigued, I googled it, and the second result was: MA in Science Fiction Studies at the University of Liverpool. I’m quite sure my heart stopped for a beat or two—I definitely forgot to breathe—and clicked on it.

The Link

It’s another one-year Masters program and it’s basically all of the conversations Kelly and I have had about if we could create the perfect/ideal science fiction program. An entire module on Utopias and Dystopias? Another on speculative fiction, dreams and nightmares, future societies and science, religion? An entire module on Ursula K. Le Guin? I’m on Cloud 9. I don’t remember being as excited for any of the medieval programs I applied for. I love medieval studies, but my first love has always been science fiction. I had no clue there was an actual degree out there for it. I’ve had a dissertation topic on Le Guin in my head for who-knows-how-long, or on Mary Doria Russell… As I said to Kelly: I’m going to apply, just for the hell of it. And if I get in, why not??

Now, I just have to pull my head down from the stars and return to Beowulf. Easier said than done.