Tuesday, 22 December 2015

I've been reading lately...

The Earthsea Cycle by Ursula K. Le Guin

If you had asked me at the start of the year whether the best thing I would read in the coming year would be a series of fantasy books from the Young Adult section of the library, I would have said it's unlikely. But guess what, that's just what has happened.

Thanks to a tip-off from a good friend, this year I fell into the world of Earthsea. It's a series of six shortish books, revolving around wizardy and dragons and all that stuff. Apart from Tolkein's epics, this is not a genre that has much appeal for me - but my gosh, can Ursula K. Le Guin write.

The writing is sparse, with just enough well-chosen words to leave room for the reader's imagination and spirit to wander and breathe. But more than just outstanding use of language, this story has incredible depth. I felt as though I was in the hands of a master storyteller, who crafts words in the fashion of an allegory or a biblical parable, so that the tale was always telling me more than the words were saying. There was something just beyond the page which I couldn't quite grasp intellectually, but which nourished my spirit instead. 

"From that time forth he believed that the wise man is one who never sets himself apart from other living things, whether they have speech or not, and in later years he strove long to learn what can be learned, in silence, from the eyes of animals, the flight of birds, the great slow gestures of trees."

I have since discovered that Le Guin has done her own translation of Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching, a book of ancient Chinese wisdom. She is obviously a deep thinker, a reflective and contemplative searcher for understanding. The fruits of all this searching she pours into her characters and Earthsea stories, distilled and available to readers young and old. It's like taking an ordinary, tepid fantasy story and infusing it with the knowledge and understanding of a woman who has spent her years coming to terms with the important things in life. 

"It is no secret. All power is one in source and end, I think. Years and distances, stars and candles, water and wind and wizardry, the craft in a man's hand and the wisdom in a tree's root: they all arise together. My name and yours and the true name of the sun, a spring of water or an unborn child, all are syllables of the great word that is very slowly spoken by the shining of the stars. There is no other power. No other name."

The characters are flawed and introspective, and there is an understanding permeating the pages that the darkness within ourselves is as much the enemy as the darkness in others.

There is a lovely pace to the story; it doesn't race from one adventure to another but tends rather to linger over the momentous moments. Le Guin certainly didn't hurry the process of writing the series; the books were written between 1968 and 2001.

She's written a whole range of other books for children, teens and adults and I'm eager delve into their pages to see what lies within.

 Ursula K. Le Guin has written a wonderful praise of libraries here: https://www.brainpickings.org/2015/11/06/ursula-k-le-guin-libraries/

In a word or two: Rich

Image 1: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/9/99/Earthsea_Trilogy.jpg
Image 2: https://www.brainpickings.org/2015/11/06/ursula-k-le-guin-libraries/

Saturday, 28 November 2015

I've been reading lately...

Island Home by Tim Winton

This book follows beautifully from the harrowing Blood on the Wattle I read last week. Tim Winton puts some salve on the wounds with his reflections on how he loves this land, and how deeply it has affected him.

The book came with me to Kanangra Boyd National Park on the weekend. 

He begins with the assertion that though we non-Aboriginals may not have a long history of connection to this wide, ancient land, we may be shaped by it more than we realise. He's not speaking of "Australia the Idea", which, he says, is just a vague political and social notion, but the physical land itself. 

"I'm increasingly mindful of the degree to which geography, distance and weather have moulded my sensory palate, my imagination and expectations. The island continent has not been mere background. Landscape has exerted a kind of force upon me that is every bit as geological as family." 
I found this comforting because though I'm a lover of our natural landscapes, I have sometimes felt, with my sun-sensitive skin and lack of knowledge of the land, that I don't truly belong here. Winton admits that us newcomers have been "like alien cells entering an organism", but we're here now and must find our own sense of connection to country. He suggests lyrically this may be by "submitting to its scale, acknowledging its irrepressible particularities, listening for its cryptic music and seeking to learn its ways".

On the topic of white invasion, Winton makes an interesting distinction when he says he feels ancestral shame for the way Aboriginals have been dispossessed of their land, but he does not feel guilt. He says we are not responsible for the culture we're born into, "but that doesn't mean we're absolved from reflecting upon our inheritance." This is an idea I haven't heard before and need to contemplate for a while.

The book is partly an unfolding, meandering essay on the important places in Winton's life, from the bush over the back fence in his Perth childhood to the rocky coves and surfspots of his Albany teenage years and the many trips he's taken as an adult. Each chapter provides insights into the source of the preoccupation with landscape that shines through in his novels.

Though at times I felt the book was lacking a bit of charge,  it gathered momentum and built up to the last glistening chapter. While acknowledging that those in power in our country are willfully blind to the call of ecology, Winton writes with a fragile optimism about a change coming through with younger generations. He  sees it as vital that we finally listen to our Indigenous people, whose wisdom is "the most under-utilised intellectual and emotional resource this country has" as a way forward. And on this he pins his hope for our land, that we finally accept this gift that has been offered and spurned for many decades.

This book inspires me on my journey to learn more.

[Thanks for the lend of the book Jo & Pete!]

Image 2: http://blogs.abc.net.au/nsw/2012/10/tim-winton-speaks-of-new-signs-of-life.html?site=sydney&program=702_drive

Sunday, 22 November 2015

I've been reading lately...

Blood On The Wattle by Bruce Elder

I normally read for pleasure. Even when I hope to learn from a book, I enjoy the reading and I enjoy what I'm learning about.

This book provided no enjoyment for me; it was sickening, harrowing and completely demoralising. But I'm glad I read it.

In recent months I've come to think that I need to take responsibility to learn more about Aboriginal Australians. I want to learn the history, I want to know about their customs and beliefs, I'd love to gain some understanding of the way they relate to the natural world. I expect this to be a long, slow journey, but I now believe that any sort of reconciliation in our country requires non-Aboriginals to take some steps - and this year I'm taking my first small steps.

Vincent Serico's 2002 acrylic dot painting, Kilcoy Massacre No. 2.

This book is subtitled "Massacres and Maltreatment of Australian Aborigines since 1788" (it was published in 1988 when "Aborigine" was still a commonly used term)  and it is primarily a factual account of many of the mass killings of Aboriginals by the British from the time of settlement until the early twentieth century. Elder uses his journalistic training to bring a mostly dispassionate tone to the book as he draws on sources such as letters, diaries and newspaper reports to relay each event. It is compelling writing, as he describes the landscape and the character of the people of the time. He hardly needs to use evocative language because the facts alone are enough to have a reader shaking to their core as he relates the details of massacre after massacre.

Before reading this book I had a vague knowledge that the Aboriginals had been mistreated, of course they had. But never before had I been confronted with the plain facts of how often, how widely, how brutally and how relentlessly they had been stripped of absolutely everything they held to be precious, and pursued across their own wide land. I was also unaware of how desperately they fought - to the limits of their ability - to hold onto their country. While I am still processing what I've read, I now feel I have a more clear-eyed understanding of our nation's recent history. We owe our history to murderous, devious cowards with guns.

Only in the introduction and conclusion does Elder provide a substantial commentary, and I found what he wrote to be heartfelt and appropriate. The final words are:

"The blood of tens of thousands of Aborigines killed since 1788, and the sense of despair and hopelessness which informs so much modern-day Aboriginal society, is a moral responsibility all white Australians share. Our wealth and lifestyle is a direct consequence of Aboriginal dispossession. We should bow our heads in shame."

Somber thoughts, and there were times when I was reading that I wondered if there was anything to be gained by learning of these atrocities, but I have a feeling we need to more fully face the darkness of our past if we are to move forwards as a unified country. Any thoughts?

Do you have any recommendations of other books I could read to help me along on my journey?

In a word or two: Horrific