raven: Karen Gillan as Amy Pond, wearing green and red and looking up (Default)
[personal profile] raven
[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. [livejournal.com 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: Now that the good winds are blowing, now that we’re done with days of anxiety and nights of terror, now that there are no more denunciations, persecutions, secret executions, and whim and madness have departed from the heart of the Empire, and we and our children aren’t playthings of blind power; now that a just man sits on the Golden Throne and people look peacefully out of their doors to see if the weather’s fine and plan their vacations and kids go to school and actors put their heart into their lines and girls fall in love and old men die in their beds and poets sing and jewelers weigh gold behind their little windows and gardeners rake the parks and young people argue and innkeepers water the wine and teachers teach what they know and we storytellers tell old stories and archivists archive and fishermen fish and all of us can decide according to our talents and lack of talents what to do with our life—now anybody can enter the emperor’s palace, out of need or curiosity; anybody can visit that great house which was for so many years forbidden, prohibited, defended by armed guards, locked, and as dark as the souls of the Warrior Emperors of the Dynasty of the Ellydrvides. Now any of us can walk those wide, tapestried corridors, sit down in the courtyards to listen to the fountains run, go into the kitchens and cadge a doughnut from a fat, grinning cook’s helper, pick a flower in the gardens, admire ourself in the mirror galleries, watch maids go by with baskets full of clean laundry, tickle the foot of a marble statue with an irreverent finger, say good morning to the crown prince’s tutors, smile at the princesses playing ball on the lawn; and then go on to the door of the throne room and simply wait our turn to come right up to the emperor and say to him, for instance, “Sir, I love plays, but my town doesn’t have a theater. Do you think you might tell them to build one?”

Ekkemantes I will probably smile, since he too loves plays, and fall to talking enthusiastically about the poetic tragedy by Orab’Maagg recently presented in the capital, until one of his counselors reminds him with a discreet cough that he can’t spend an hour chattering with every one of his subjects because it would leave him no time to rule the Empire. And probably the good emperor, who seems born to smiles and good nature, though he wielded weapons like the black-winged angel of war when it was a matter of eradicating from the Empire the greed and cruelty of a damnable race, will reply to the counselor that chattering for an hour with each of his subjects is one way of ruling the Empire, and not the worst way, but that the lord counselor is right, and in order not to lose any more valuable time, he’ll dictate a decree to the lord counselor and sign it himself, ordering that a theater be constructed in the town of Sariaband. And very likely the counselor will stare and say: “My lord! building a theater, even a theater for a very small town, is an expensive business!”

“Oh, that’s all right,” the emperor may say—“let’s not obsess about money. A theater’s never expensive, because what goes on inside it teaches people to think and understand themselves. There’s some jewel in the palace, some fortune down in the basement, to cover the cost. And if nothing turns up, we’ll ask all the actors in the Empire to send the profits from one day, one evening, one show, to help build a theater in Sariaband, where some of them will act some day or where some day they’ll see their son act, or their daughter, or a student who they’ve been trying to teach the hundred and eleven methods of expressing sorrow on the stage. And when the actors agree, we’ll build a theater of the pink marble from the quarries of the province of Sariabb, and we’ll ask the sculptors of the Imperial Academy to carve statues of Comedy and Tragedy to flank the doorways.”

And the play-lover will go off happy, whistling, his hands in his pockets, his heart light, and maybe before he reaches the doors of the great throne room he’ll hear the emperor shouting after him, promising to come in person to the opening of the theater, and the lord counselor clicking his tongue in disapproval of such a transgression of protocol.

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:

I always wondered why the makers leave housekeeping and cooking out of their tales. Isn't it what all the great wars and battles are fought for - so that at day's end a family may eat together in a peaceful house? The tale tells how the Lords of Manva hunted and gathered roots and cooked their suppers while they were camped in exile in the foothills of Sul, but it doesn't say what their wives and children were living on in their city left ruined and desolate by the enemy. They were finding food too, somehow, cleaning house and honouring the gods, the way we did in the siege and under the tyranny of the Alds. When the heroes came back from the mountain they were welcome with a feast. I'd like to know what the food was and how the women managed it.

When I came into the kitchen, Sosta and Bomi were all agog, having met the guests, and Ista was on the very edge of a tantrum - "How in the name of Sampa the Destroyer is a woman to feed guests on a scrap of fish and a kale stalk?" The additional greens and celery-root I brought averted disaster. She set to work grating ginger and chopping thessony and ordering Bomi and even Sosta about unmercifully. Galvamand would not scant its guests or shame its ancestors if Ista could help it. This is part of what I meant about housework. If it isn't important, what is? If it isn't done honourably, where is honour?

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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