3 of 5 stars
Should I be ashamed to admit that I've never read any Ursula K. Le Guin until now? Maybe I should, since she's been a giant of the SFF field for decades, and her Hugo-winning novel The Left Hand of Darkness is acknowledged as a classic of the genre. For some reason, her novels have never attracted me--they just don't seem like they would be my kind of thing. Which is a poor excuse, I know. Still, this essay collection was definitely my kind of thing, at least until I hit the final third of the book.
May I say, first and foremost, that her writing is beautiful: poetic and precise, with nary a word wasted. She has a self-deprecating sense of humor, almost British in its wry understatement. This is most evident in the first two sections of the book--"Talks, Essays, and Occasional Pieces" and "Book Introductions and Notes on Writers." The final section, "Book Reviews," was something of a letdown for me, and ultimately resulted in my bumping my rating down a star; the reason being that with the exception of China Mieville, the books being reviewed did not sound interesting at all, despite her erudite defense and exploration of their merits. Magical realism is not my cup of tea, and straight literary fiction even less.
The first section--"Talks, Essays, and Occasional Pieces"--is to me the best, and the outstanding essay here is "What It Was Like," a gut-punch of a short speech about life for American women before Roe v. Wade. I simply must quote a couple of paragraphs from it, because it took my breath away.
I can hardly imagine what it's like to live as a woman under Fundamentalist Islamic law. I can hardly remember now, fifty-four years later, what it was like to live under Fundamentalist Christian law. Thanks to Roe v. Wade, none of us in America has lived in that place for half a lifetime.
But I can tell you what it is like, for me, right now. It's like this: If I had dropped out of college, thrown away my education, depended on my parents through the pregnancy, birth, and infancy, till I could get some kind of work and gain some kind of independence for myself and the child, if I had done all that, which is what the anti-abortion people want me to have done, I would have borne a child for them, for the anti-abortion people, the authorities, the theorists, the fundamentalists; I would have borne a child for them, their child.
But I would not have borne my own first child, or second child, or third child. My children.
I'd never seen that before. I wish it was included with every piece of literature Planned Parenthood and similar organizations put out.
The final section of the book, "The Hope of Rabbits: A Journal of a Writer's Week," is her record of a week spent in a writer's colony. It is the perfect way to end this book, with its beautiful prose, marvelous descriptions of her surroundings and the wildlife found there, and deep dive into one writer's process. This is a quiet sort of book, not loud or flashy, but the wit and wisdom found within its pages will stay with you after the flash fades away.