Winter reading mini-review dump

Mini-reviews of some of the books I’ve read in winter 2018; mostly yelling about how much I love Tove Jansson. Also includes Ursula K. Le Guin and Takashi Hiraide.

Tove Jansson

It isn’t often that I get to add a writer to my pantheon of favorites, but this winter I did. Tove Jansson’s writing for adults is a wonder (and I only say “writing for adults” because I’m still working my way through the Moomintroll books). If I ever understand people as well as Jansson did, I’ll count myself wise.

Fair Play (novel, 1989): These linked vignettes follow an elderly lesbian couple, Mari and Jonna, whose delightfully cantankerous love is stressed but never broken by weather, travel, technology, and irritating houseguests. Stories about artists usually annoy me; I find them self-absorbed or precious. But Mari and Jonna—a writer and a painter, respectively—see art as sharing the beauty of the everyday, from rowing together through a foggy bay to bickering over a bad B-Western. Their love, for the world and each other, is an act of reverent attention. The same is true of Jansson’s prose. I read this book twice and I’ll probably do so again in 2019.

The True Deceiver (novel, 1982). In Fair Play, Jansson’s artist Jonna remarks that no person is ever completely consistent; we are more believable to the extent that we sometimes act against our own characters. The True Deceiver illustrates this principle through a woman so unsettled by her own occasional inconsistencies that she angrily suppresses them. Her approach to life is nakedly Machiavellian, and her machinations mostly aim to make a secure life for her beloved younger brother. Cruelly, her rigid adherence to her principles finally distances her from him.

The Woman Who Borrowed Memories (collected short stories, 2014): A set of understated yet eerily perceptive character studies whose insight has the fidelity of direct observation. Jansson renders the murkiness of people’s motivations clearly without clarifying them. Her characters feel real rather than built (and I say this as someone who appreciates the visible labor in good character-building).


Ursula K. Le Guin

I never did get around to writing my final reviews of the Earthsea cycle. I still intend to do so, sometime. Until then, these placeholders:

Tales From Earthsea (short stories, 2001): Le Guin’s Earthsea writing is at its strongest and most innovative here. Tales perfects the balance she achieved in Tehanu between intimate character moment and epic story—especially the novella “Dragonfly,” in which a dragon-woman named Irian upends Earthsea’s entire cosmology. The book also contains an Appendix which (happily but also frustratingly) contains the only clear evidence of queer people in Earthsea: witches who marry in a “witch-troth,” and the heroes Maharion and Erreth-Akbe, whose brotherly love is clearly—although again frustratingly, never named as—more than that.

The Other Wind (novel, 2001): It’s a testament to Le Guin’s imagination that this final book in the Earthsea cycle feels like the only possible conclusion to the series, though she did not plan it that way. The novel admits the inhumane horror of the “dry land,” Earthsea’s cold, dim, loveless afterlife, and pointedly identifies it as a consequence of human greed, the mages’ desire to own the landscape of immortality. The book’s heroes destroy the dry land, but at a heavy cost: dragons have to leave Earthsea forever. I won’t get into the mechanics, as they’re too complicated, but the symbolic point is clear. What we buy in greed we pay for in wonder, even if we’re too dull to recognize the currency.


Takashi Hiraide, The Guest Cat (novel, 2001): On its surface a quiet portrait of a thirty-something couple and their adopted cat; actually a love-letter to the traditional Japanese architecture that disappeared in the condo boom of the late 80’s and early 90’s, which Hiraide parallels with the disappearance of a certain kind of appreciation for slow life: “useless” beauty, refusals of capitalist ownership—the carefully-groomed garden, the cat who belongs to no one.