Dec. 4th, 2014

raven: Karen Gillan as Amy Pond, wearing green and red and looking up (Default)
[personal profile] riverlight asked: I'd love to hear about some of your favorite books, the kind you read over and over again!

I have a lot of favourite books! But limiting the list to ones I actually do re-read regularly made narrowing it down easier. Here they are, and I've probably forgotten a half-dozen:

A Suitable Boy, Vikram Seth
I’ve written at length about this elsewhere, but in brief: it’s Seth’s monster 1400-page novel that’s sort of about Lata Mehra, and her mother’s struggle to find her a suitable boy for a husband, and sort of about the 1950 general election, India’s first, and about India: India the unreachable idea, the enormous concept, so shown to us through the lens of fifty or sixty Indian people leading their lives. It is engaging and funny and warm and vast and infinitely human and humane; I re-read it every few years and I adore it.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, Susanna Clarke
I’ve written about this one elsewhere as well! It’s 1806, England is in the midst of the Napoleonic Wars, and bit by bit, magic is returning to England. It's a novel about magic and wartime and the way white, and male, power works; it's also silly and funny and happy and delightful and replete with worldbuilding and footnotes. And it's also about England: about places, and placeness. There's a line in it I come back to and come back to: The land is all too shallow / It is painted on the sky. The book is more than a thousand pages but I have read it thrice in three years. I love it very much.

Kalpa Imperial, Angelica Gorodischer (trans. Ursula Le Guin)
I love this book so, so much I kind of want to learn Spanish just to read it in the original (this, and Borges). But given I don’t speak Spanish, the Le Guin translation is a blessing. This is a a collection of short stories that are connected, in that together they form a history of an empire that never existed – and they are beautiful, interesting, witty and grounded, and they speak to me on a very basic level. It's hard to say what they're about, but mostly, about history: about education, about humanity, about kindness and the way on. [ profile] hathy_col gave me a Christmas present – I mean Christmas this year, because she's the most organised person I know – of Lord Dunsany’s collected stories, and the resemblance is quite noticeable, actually; Dunsany also writes like this, with a clear-eyed sparse style that nevertheless suggests the great history of empires.

This is Kalpa Imperial:

The storyteller said: )

Isn't that perfect? That's how it starts. I guess what it is, is this: I have never liked fairy tales, and they are not fairy tales. They’re not stories about the private sphere – not about evil stepmothers or princesses spinning or even subversions of that – but about the public sphere, about great cities and governments and republics and wars, but with the humanity of the small and the precious. I’ve read them many, many times and I’ve never got sick of them. And although I’m reading Dunsany mostly for the first time right now, I think his stories are going to be like Kalpa Imperial, that I come back to and come back to.

(Actually, let's give Dunsany a minute, even though he's not quite in the spirit of the question being asked. He writes exactly the sort of myffic fantasy I can't stand, except in his hands the great beauty is in the details: he tells you, for example, of swords and sorcery and great quests and battles, along the banks of the River Yann in the Land of Dreams; and he also tells you that among the river sailors, it's the custom to pray one at a time, so the gods don't get confused. All this, and shatteringly crystalline prose. (e.g., "It is vey difficult to draw away from the face of God—it is like a warm fire, it is like dear sleep, it is like a great anthem, yet there is a stillness all about it, a stillness full of lights.” (!!)) He seems to have been this huntin’ shootin’ fishin’ type, living in mildly aristocratic Anglo-Irish splendour in the early twentieth century; he’s the last person in the world you would have expected to write like this. I suppose we all do contain multitudes. I talk too much.)

Voices, Ursula K. Le Guin
This is one of Le Guin’s later books, nominally YA and kind of overlooked generally, I think – the series is the Annals of the Western Shore, and there are two others, Powers and Gifts, but they each stand alone – and it’s… well. It’s the story of Ansul, which was a university city full of libraries and books. When it was invaded and taken over, the books were destroyed as sinful, and the city’s Waylord – its elected leader – kidnapped and tortured. All of this happens before the story begins. It’s actually the story of a girl called Memer, born during the siege, who is taught by the Waylord in secret to read. And that’s it, in a way – it’s a coming-of-age story set against a revolution, but it’s also small, and human and meaningful. That’s why I love Le Guin (and why I think she was such a good choice to translate Kalpa Imperial): because she writes things like this:

housekeeping and cooking )

Reading over this, I’m noticing that word “human” a lot. I don’t really do epics or grimdarkness or sword and sorcery or middle-class alienation or anything like that. I think I return to books that are about people, doing what they can, doing small things that matter, in worlds that are politically and fantastically complex. So, like real life, in fact.

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