While most folk are celebrating with their families, or going out for Chinese food, I am cleaning and reading. I’m finishing up a short story collection by Ursula K. Le Guin. I know, I know, big surprise that I’m reading Le Guin. Her prose is always a favorite of mine.
But I wanted to pipe up today: if you ever have a chance, read The Compass Rose. It’s one of the best short story collections I’ve ever read. Of late, I’ve read a lot of short stories. I’ve been licking screen prose from Daily Science Fiction, popping Bradbury like candy, and rolling in Stanislaw Lem. I keep returning to Le Guin, though. There is something about the way she handles human relationships that makes almost every story achingly beautiful.
The Compass Rose is arranged not just around the cardinal directions, but up and down: Zenith and Nadir. There are six sections, then, and the tales themselves relate in theme (for instance, west for death, dying, age and endings) or direction of travel to the section in which they’re included.
Take, for instance, “Gwilan’s Harp.” It’s in the West section, and is the story of a life changed course through the breaking of a harp, it’s the tale of an ordinary woman’s life with an extraordinary gift. No great glory, no fortune to find, just a family life, and an old age. And the simple realization that “…you play the instrument you have.” There is power in this, power in the familiar, the ordinary. There is more truth in it than great imaginings or vast battles and worlds changed. Worlds change in a eye blink and at a snail’s pace. And change’s agents are so many that we are all carrying a single grain of rice to fill a storehouse. But this is Le Guin’s art.
Or “The Author of the Acacia Seeds,” which was also printed in Buffalo Gals and Other Animal Visitations. Movement as text. Humans are not alone on this rock. It leads off the collection, and takes the breath away.
I am leafing through “Sur” now, an all women’s expedition to the Antarctic. As the volume closes, the old familiar feeling of sadness at a book’s end is creeping up on me. Anthony Burgess awaits me when I’m finished, and A Clockwork Orange is not nearly so inviting a text.
If you have something of a winter break, a few spare days for New Years set aside to read, pick up The Compass Rose. It’s worth it. Perhaps it will leave you haunted. If it does, you’re welcome.