Twice a year, we’re invited to celebrate a particular year in publication history — and the results are always fascinating! It’s also interesting to see each time which books from that year I’ve read already, and which ones I’m drawn to. Please visit the hosting blogs for complete links and many wonderful reviews: Stuck in a Book and Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings.
This time, I was surprised to find that 1976 brought to light three favorites that I’ve already posted about on my former blog, The Emerald City Book Review:
- Power of Three by Diana Wynne Jones
- World of Wonders by Robertson Davies, part of the Deptford Trilogy (guest post for Robertson Davies Reading Week)
- Bilgewater by Jane Gardam
So it was quite a good year, in my personal reading life anyway. Thus far this week I’ve not seen these particular books reviewed, aside from Power of Three at Staircase Wit, but I hope they will be discovered by some of the 1976 Clubbers at some point, because they are excellent.
For my own reading this week, I decided to take up an unread work by yet another of my very favorite authors: Orsinian Tales by Ursula K. Le Guin. It’s a book I know I owned in the past, and started to read, but never finished, because it wasn’t the kind of fantasy tale I was expecting. However, this year I finally read Malafrena, Le Guin’s novel set in her imaginary Eastern European country of Orsinia — and loved it. So I was very pleased to dive into that world again, when the Club rolled around.
In general I’m not a huge fan of short stories. If they are good, I just want them to be longer, and if they’re not good, they have no reason to exist at all. But I can better tolerate volumes of stories that center around a character, or family, or group of characters, or sometimes, as here, a place. That gives me more of a feeling of continuity, something to hang on to as I pass from story to story, without the letdown of being torn abruptly from a setting I was just getting to know. And Le Guin excels at creating imaginary settings that bring out some aspect of our human experience, whether they are alternate planets, magical worlds, or countries that could exist in our world but never did. When I first opened Orsinian Tales I only noticed how different it seemed to me from her other books; now I notice how much they have in common.
Like all of her work, it’s about love and freedom. Love, that connects and mends and binds up, but can also bind in an unhealthy way, imprisoning and limiting. And freedom, which brings individual growth, possibility, change — but can also divide, estrange, and cause conflict. In my opinion, most if not all of the stories are love stories, exploring not only love for a man or woman, but love of art and music, or of home, of landscape. Since Orsinia is a melancholy and troubled land, that love is never easy. The evil in human hearts springs up and creates great walls of darkness that are not easy to shine through; even for good, well-meaning people, there are obstacles of misunderstanding, pride, or weakness.
If it sounds like there is a lot of tragedy and darkness in these stories, you are right. They are full of powerful forces that try to snuff out the light in the individual. But the striving, the searching after light, through all ages of history and all lands, real or imaginary, will continue regardless of how impossible it seems. And Le Guin, as always, narrates that tale with masterful style and great insight and compassion.
The stories take place at different times of Orsinian history, but aside from a few that reach back into a feudal past shadowed by paganism, they are mostly set in the last couple of centuries, journeying through the grim progress of industrialization, attempted and repressed uprisings, the years disrupted by war, and the iron grip of Communism. I would personally love to know more about Orsinia in the deeper past, but this more recent era seems to be the time that most ignited Le Guin’s imagination.
The stories are not arranged chronologically, so you may find yourself dizzied by the skipping around in time. A date given at the end of each story indicates when it takes place; I admit to always checking this first, to orient myself, but some readers find it interesting to discover it only at the end. Sometimes the date provides an extra twist of irony — characters in the 1930s, for example, don’t know what is coming to them, but we do. In a funny way, maybe there is a speculative fiction element of time travel in these stories, after all — from our perspective as readers, if not for the characters themselves.
As I was working my way through the Orsinian stories, I discovered that Le Guin had published another book in 1976 – her short YA novel Very Far Away from Anywhere Else, which as well as containing no dragons or spaceships or other SFF trappings, is set in a nameless American city that I presume to be Portland, Oregon, Le Guin’s home for many years, and therefore about as un-imaginary as you can get. However, aside from the attempt at a contemporary teenage first-person voice (now sounding somewhat dated and quaint), it reminded me of some of the Orsinian tales, in its focus on two young people who have a hard time learning how to love one another, while guarding and fostering the light that is in them.
Surely it was a little joke of Le Guin’s that in the year she finally published her volume of stories about the invented country which had lived in her mind for many years, accompanying her growth as a writer, she also gave voice to a lonely young man who finds solace in making up stories about an island located “very far away from anywhere else.” He finds his way back to the world, strengthened and empowered by the freedom he has made his own in the realm of imagination. And we can too, when we take up the challenge Le Guin offers.