#FridayReads: My favorite Ursula K. Le Guin novels

Ursula K. Le Guin, whom I’m going to call the greatest writer of all time, passed away on Monday. I don’t usually cry when people I’ve never met died, but I cried when I read that sad news. Le Guin’s work touched me in so many ways—too many to share them all here. But there are three that stand out, and I’ll share those. Share yours in the comments!

1. Catwings

cover for CatwingsMy family wasn’t rich, but one thing I never lacked was reading material. Weekly trips to the library and a plethora of magazine subscriptions kept me in books and stories. We got lots of great magazines: Highlights for Kids, American Girl, some sort of crafty activity magazine, Zoobooks, a few comics. But my absolute favorites were Spider and Cricket, because they published actual short stories.

In one of these two (I can’t remember which one), I read a story called Catwings. I couldn’t get enough of it. Every issue I’d check first to see if there was a new Catwings story. At the time, I had no conception that the author was a famous sci-fi writer named Ursula K. Le Guin. I just knew it was a good story and I cared about the characters. Those little stories about cats who could fly stuck with me. Of course that’s not the only story from my childhood that stuck with me (there’s Narnia, and The BFG, and Leo Lionni’s picture books about mice, and Dr. Seuss, and Big Red, and Nancy Drew, and too many more to name them all), but it’s one that stuck out even among all the others. I remember reading the story “Jane on Her Own” and being scared for Jane, but also exhilarated that she could go have her own adventures, away from her family. If Jane could, then so could I! Years and years later, I stumbled on a Catwings book in a Barnes & Noble and was delighted—though not surprised—to discover Le Guin was the author.

2. The Left Hand of Darkness

cover for The Left Hand of DarknessIn high school I went to every used book sale within a 25-mile radius of my home. At one of these, I picked up a paperback copy of The Left Hand of Darkness for 50 cents. It was an edition from the ’70s, with yellowed pages and a faded cover. I’d heard Le Guin’s name mentioned over and over in sci-fi circles, so I took it upon myself to read it. The summer between high school and college, I read The Left Hand of Darkness, and it changed how I viewed not just the world, but the very concepts of “truth” and storytelling.

As a conservative Christian kid, I had some pretty messed up views on gender. But even then, patriarchal norms chaffed against my sense of independence (thanks, books!) and solid knowledge that I was just as good as any man (thanks, Mom and Dad!). The Left Hand of Darkness confirmed what I already felt: it was all a construct. It didn’t have to be that way. And it was, then, I think, that I began to decide it wouldn’t be that way, not for me. No one was going to tell me what I could or couldn’t accomplish. No one was going to tell me what I was worth. And people have tried—oh, they’ve tried—but fuck them. I’m living the life I want to live, not the life society tells me I should want.

And something else. In the introduction to that edition of the novel, Le Guin wrote a beautiful essay about truth. In it, she writes, “But I am an artist too, and therefore a liar. Distrust everything I say. I am telling the truth.” When I read those words, I understood what it means to tell stories. I understood why stories are so important to me, why I want to read them and write them. I understood that “truth,” too, is its own construct (not to be confused with facts). And that—that’s when I really became a writer.

3. Always Coming Home

cover for Always Coming HomeBy the time I read Always Coming Home I already counted Le Guin as one of my favorite authors. After I read Always Coming Home, she moved right up the list to number one, and I seriously doubt anyone could replace her. I wrote an essay about why this is her greatest book, and you can read it on Monday when it comes out (I’ll try to remember to post a link here when it does). But that essay leaves out the personal impact this book had on me.

Always Coming Home is a fictional anthropological study of an animistic society living in a futurist California that’s been destroyed and reclaimed. This isn’t just a novel—it’s a guidebook for how to live without capitalism, without patriarchy, without hate, without fear. It’s utopia, but utopia that could actually exist if only we weren’t so hell-bent on profits, greed, and destruction.

Reading this book caused me to make real changes in my way of life. It got me thinking about the intersections of the urban world and the natural world. It got me thinking about healing. It got me thinking about spirituality, and what that even meant. It got me thinking about being a whole person. I consider Always Coming Home to be my bible—my guide for living a meaningful, connected, creative life. I don’t follow it slavishly (Le Guin would hate that), but it’s my inspiration. My North Star. It reminds me that all these things—life, creativity, nature, everything—is an ongoing process. The world will keep turning long after I’m gone. I am only a single part in this great ecosystem, but that doesn’t mean I am unimportant. I have something to offer, and so do you. I’ll be happy if my gifts to the world equal half of what Le Guin’s were to me.

Rest in peace, Grandmother.

Miss Migraine: Another way of living

Banner that says "The Adventures of Miss Migraine"

The Adventures of Miss Migraine is an ongoing column about my life with chronic migraine. A version of this post appeared first on August 3, 2012, on my blog of the same name.

I am currently reading a book of essays on writing fiction called The Half-Known World, written by Robert Boswell. One of the essays examines the use of “alternate universes” in literary fiction–not literal alternate universes like the Bizarro World of Superman, but moments in a text when a character’s “vision expands beyond its usual limits.”

On page 111, there’s a passage that struck me as particularly relevant to those of us living with chronic illnesses, especially invisible ones. The passage is as follows:

There are times when it seems there must be some other way of living, moments when the utterly ordinary takes on a measure of strangeness. Now and again, you may even feel as if you live in two worlds at once, one that is orderly and regular and looks like representations of life you’re accustomed to, and another that is disorderly and irregular and nothing like representations you’ve seen anywhere.

Even though the essay is about fiction, this paragraph speaks directly about people. And I know this feeling exactly.

For a long time I tried not to talk about my headaches, because it always garnered the same responses: do you need glasses, could it be something else, that sucks, I’m sorry, the you-are-faking-it look, the awkward silence. So I lived (or tried to) like a superhero, with two identities. Normal Kelly, who went out and did things and had fun,  and Migraine Kelly, who laid in bed with an icepack on her head. In many ways, that hasn’t changed, except that now I talk about my illness openly (and try not to get too irritated by the canned responses).

And then there are times — a half a day every few months or so — when the pain subsides to the point that I don’t notice it at all. In those moments, I feel wonder and amazement. I search my head for the pain. It’s hard for me to believe that it’s not there, but when it isn’t, truly isn’t, I feel as though I’ve been transported to another universe, maybe another body. I wish I could stay there, but a migraine always brings me back to myself.

Ultimately, I’m not sure which mode of being feels more normal to me, more “orderly and regular,” and which one feels more strange, “more disorderly and irregular.” That scares me a little bit. I’d like to say I’m accustomed to being normal and social and happy, but I fear the truth is that I’m not. I’m accustomed to being in pain, to limping through life, being careful not to do anything to make the pain worse. But I do feel like somehow, some way, there must be another way of living. I just haven’t found it yet.

(The book is, by the way, quite excellent, and I’d recommend it for any writer or avid reader. Click here to order the book. I’m not getting anything to say that, either!)

What’s your “normal” mode of being? How do you envision that other way of living for yourself or anyone else you know who lives with an illness?

Their Eyes Were Watching God and meta-storytelling with a frame narrative

Some critics have said Zora Neale Hurston’s novel about love and loss is not “good” because the narration slips between Janie’s dialect and the narrator’s voice.

I think Edwidge Danticat’s words in the introduction to Their Eyes Were Watching God say it best, though: “Hurston herself also becomes Janie’s echo by picking up the narrative thread in intervals, places where in real life, or real time, Janie may have simply grown tired of talking.”

The novel makes use of a frame.  We start at the end of the story, when Janie is returning home after burying her lover Teacake.  Hurston generates interest immediately when we hear the villagers gossiping about Janie and where she’s been.  We find out a lot about her character when she ignores all of them and decides to tell her story to her friend Phoebe only, who can then do as she wants with it.

So, Danticat’s explanation makes sense because Janie is telling her story to her friend Phoebe “in real time.”  It also sets up the narrator as a fly on the wall in Janie’s life, someone who is telling the story of Janie telling her story.

If we look at the way Janie tells her story, she is always frank and honest, and does not sugarcoat the truth, although there are some ugly ones in there.  But, more importantly, she tells the story in her own voice–and a strong voice it is.

Although writing in dialect has gone out of vogue and is generally considered disrespectful and crass, I think it’s integral to this narrative.  Perhaps Hurston could have conveyed the same dialect and inflection without “misspelling” words, but then we would read the story in our own voices, with our own pronunciation.

By using dialect in this way, Hurston forces us to read in Janie’s voice, and in the voices of the other characters.  We have to become them, if only for a moment, to experience their stories.  That makes the narrative immersive.

Despite the frame narrative and the fact that this is a novel about a woman telling her friend a story, I have difficulty calling it metafiction, because of how immersive it is, and how wonderfully it draws the reader in without calling particular attention to anything but the story itself.

Yes, the astute reader is going to think about the way Janie tells the story and the frame narrative and what it means, but a casual reader will probably not.  After all, who hasn’t sat down after a particularly difficult experience and told the story to a close friend or family member?

I also have difficulty not calling it metafiction, or meta-storytelling at the very least, because the book does proclaim—rather loudly—that this is Janie’s story, and Janie is telling it her way, and she is not making any apologies.  Not to her neighbors, and not to the reader.  And that is a proclamation that should make us think about the structure, characters, and why we tell stories to each other.

A version of this post first appeared on my now-defunct blog about metafiction, The Narrative in the Blog, on September 7, 2010.