Fantasy booklist: some Englishwomen

Some Englishwomen. The English are great at fantasy. They also review their fantasy authors’ books in the London Times. 

Angela Carter wrote many collections of short stories, including retellings of fairytales, that are dark, definitely adult reading, like The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories (which includes a Bluebeard story), but my favorite is her last novel, which is very bright: *Wise Children, about the twins Dora and Nora Chance, ‘who love to sing and dance’, and are the illegitimate daughters of a famous Shakespearean actor. The novel follows their picaresque life, first in vaudeville, later in movies, as told by Dora. (I call this ‘fantasy’ because of its tone – but maybe it’s ‘fabulist’?) And Nights at the Circus, about a 6 foot tall cockney trapeze artist at the turn of the century (last one, not this one, so early 1900s) who has wings, and goes on tour in Russia.

Also, Shaking a Leg, a compilation of her essays and journalism, is one of those books that has something interesting to read no matter where you open it. Carter was one of those acute observers who noticed a naked Emperor. Click on her name for her biography (1940-1992), and links to other articles about her plays, articles, and many other books.

51oOJm4QBwLTanith Lee does hard-core adult fantasy, as well as light-hearted YA, as well as horror. Her *Flat Earth Series (5 or 6 books) is wonderful and a bit creepy, like an X-rated Arabian Nights (as when one of the Lords of Darkness steals an infant boy as his mother is dying in childbirth, because the infant looks like he’ll grow up to be pretty.) The Lords of Darkness include Death, the Demon, Madness (or Delirium, Delusion), and Fate (or Destiny), who appear as people, and have linked stories that intersect throughout the series. One book about the Demon’s daughter (Delirium’s Mistress) is more like a novel, following the fortunes and misfortunes of the daughter, her love affair with Madness, over centuries of life. This series and many of Lee’s other stories have an undercurrent of spiritual awe based on Eastern philosophy; they take reincarnation for granted, along with the working out of karma over many lifetimes, and the potential for good and evil in each character. Even the Demon is not simply dark; he has another side, but in some way it is up to his daughter to live out both sides fully. (Lee’s Lords of Darkness predated the Sandman comics; I like the way Neil Gaiman took inspiration from her, and that his Death did not appear as a man but as a young woman.)

Lee is prolific, so just some favorites (I’m skipping the horror because I can’t manage the scary stuff): a collection of short stories called *Tamastara, or The Indian Nights, magical events in past, present, and future Indias; a book of linked short stories plus novella about the adventures of *Cyrion, a swordfighting, nomadic Sherlock Holmes in an alternate historical Middle East that is rife with sorcery; *The Silver Metal Lover, about a poor little rich girl in a futuristic world who falls in love with a musician android sex toy; Sabella, about a young woman who is a Martian colonist and a vampire; and Saint Fire, a retelling of Joan of Arc in a medieval, alternate-world Venice, about a slave who can make fire come through her fingers. Lee is good at toppling reader expectations – she turns on a dime. Click on her name for a link to a Guardian UK blog post about her many, wonderful, underappreciated (and under the radar) books.

Doris Lessing also made forays into science fiction/fantasy, some stiff, some transcendent. One book was almost a fable, *The Marriages Between Zones 3, 4, and 5. A page-turner, with vivid characters and other worlds (the zones), despite the cumbersome title. Click on her name for a link to a site that has a bio, a list of all of her books, etc.

Imagining hope, the books

imagesBoth Ursula Le Guin and Diana Wynne Jones have said that “writers of the imagination” can inspire hope as they imagine alternatives to destruction and despair…Marina Warner said something similar in From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers, and probably so have plenty of other people. In honor of the sun moving into Sagittarius, the sign of optimism, what follows is a short, random list of hope-inspiring books and/or worlds, that offer alternative solutions to a number of things:

Ursula Le Guin, The Dispossessed, The Lathe of Heaven, Always Coming Home, The Telling, Tehanu, Dancing on the Edge of the World, etc. (science fiction and literary criticism)

Diana Wynne Jones, Howl’s Moving Castle, Fire and Hemlock, Black Maria, The Dalemark Quartet, long story short, pretty much everything (fantasy)

Stanley Cavell, Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage (essays about the classic romantic comedies — mostly starring Cary Grant, often with Katharine Hepburn.)

Lewis Hyde, The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property (using anthropology, literary criticism, fairytales, and the kitchen sink, Hyde looks at what it means to be an artist, healer, teacher, or anyone else whose work is based on the gift, living in a money economy.)

Isabel Allende, Eva Luna (magical realism, the story of a girl who is born a servant and becomes a writer)

Peter Kropotkin, Mutual Aid (written in 1902, a scientist’s alternative to social Darwinism)

Emma Goldman, Living My Life (“If I can’t dance I don’t want to be in your revolution.”)(autobiography of an anarchist)

Terry Pratchett, Nation, Going Postal, A Monstrous Regiment, Witches Abroad, A Hat Full of Sky, etc., etc. (fantasy)

Matthew Fox, The Reinvention of Work: A New Vision of Livelihood for Our Time (essays about work with heart)

Carolyn See, The Handyman, Golden Days, There Will Never Be Another You (fiction: in which many of her protagonists fight despair with hoping outside the box)

Marion Milner, A Life of One’s Own (the journal of a pioneer of lucid dreaming in 1920s London)

Kim Stanley Robinson, Lucky Strike (science fiction novella; alternate history of Hiroshima and the atom bomb)

Starhawk, Dreaming the Dark (essays) and The Fifth Sacred Thing (fantasy, a future California where San Francisco is run by little old ladies and Wiccans; L.A. is the evil empire where those who own the water run everything)

Nancy Farmer, A Girl Named Disaster, The House of the Scorpion (fantasy and science fiction: an 11-year old girl in Mozambique runs away from an arranged marriage, survives with the help of animals and spirits; the early life of the boy who is a clone of a 140-year old drug lord in a land called Opium, in what is now Arizona)

Francisco X. Stork, Marcelo and the Real World (fiction: Marcelo lives in a treehouse behind his family’s home; he hears inner music and is happiest working with the Haflinger ponies at his special school; what happens when his father puts him to work at his corporate law office for the summer so he can get some experience in the real world.)

Ruth Ozeki, A Tale for the Time Being (fiction: a Japanese-American girl named Nao is the time being; so is the woman named Ruth who reads Nao’s diary when she finds it on a beach in Vancouver; so is Nao’s great-grandmother, a Buddhist nun)

Robertson Davies, Fifth Business, World of Wonders (fiction: see earlier post)

Dorothy Sayers, Gaudy Night (mystery featuring Lord Peter Wimsey: set in a fictional women’s college at Oxford in 1935, the theme is women’s education, equality between sexes, and the course of true love)

Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita (fiction, or a very strange roman a clef: the Devil comes to 1920s Moscow — where no one believes in him — except a woman named Margarita and a nameless writer who was driven crazy when his novel about Pontius Pilate was ridiculed by the powers that be. This book was banned in the USSR for 30 years, censored for even longer, and Bulgakov officially known as “a slanderer of Soviet reality”.)

Doris Lessing, The Four-gated City, particularly the appendix, where she veers into an s.f. future (fiction, the fifth novel in her Martha Quest series, roman a clef)

Sheri Tepper, The Margarets, Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, The Fresco, The Family Tree, Beauty etc. etc. (science fiction and fantasy, focused on gender and environmental issues, funny and sometimes sad)

Eleanor Arnason, Changing Women (science fiction: a group of anthropologists from a reclaimed earth land on a planet inhabited by matriarchal ‘fur-people’)





Character and Shadow: Diaries of Jane Somers by Doris Lessing

Jane Somers:LessingThe Diaries of Jane Somers, Doris Lessing (fiction, but initially published as the autobiography of Jane Somers; Lessing’s hilarious account of going undercover as Jane — a ‘new’ author, because Jane’s historical romances didn’t count — is the preface)

The first part is a summing up of about four years. I was not keeping a diary. I wish I had. All I know is that I see everything differently now from how I did while I was living through it. 

My life until Freddie started to die was one thing, afterwards another. Until then I thought of myself as a nice person. Like everyone, just about, that I know. The people I work with, mainly. I know now that I did not ask myself what I was really like, but thought only about how other people judged me.

When Freddie began to be so ill my first idea was: this is unfair. Unfair to me, I thought secretly. I partly knew he was dying, but went on as if he wasn’t. That was not kind. He must have been lonely. I was proud of myself because I went on working through it all, “kept the money coming in”–well, I had to do that, with him not working. But I was thankful I was working because I had an excuse not to be with him in that awfulness.

Lessing shooting from the hip. She presents Jane as someone who lived an unexamined life until her husband died of cancer, when she realized that she had abandoned him emotionally. As the editor of a high-end fashion magazine called Lilith (the one bit of Lessing-type irony in the book), Jane’s life has been based on her image — how she presents herself — and her work at a magazine that also presents images of women. Part of what makes the diary compelling is Jane’s analysis of these images — where they come from, what they mean, how they “work”, and what images of women get left out.

Her insider view of how the magazine and the people in it function is insightful and funny, but the impetus of the book is Jane’s desire to understand what she truly values and act on it — to learn compassion. She begins by spending time with Maudie Fowler, an impoverished, “cantankerous”, ninety-something woman Jane meets in a local drugstore. The first diary is the story of their friendship, its ups and downs of anger and liking, Jane’s difficulties in helping Maudie without being condescending, and Maudie’s life in stories she tells to Jane. Their friendship throws light into the dark places Jane has begun to examine in herself, but this is also a meditation on a culture, and how its unspoken values affect the thoughts of the individual who lives in it. Jane notes that the instinctive reaction of the young electrician she hires to fix the crumbling wiring in Maudie’s kitchen is to wonder: “What is the good of people that old?” and Jane herself asks: “What is the use of Maudie Fowler?” Lessing doesn’t attempt to answer these questions; but because she asks them so baldly the reader is able, through Jane’s diaries, to examine his or her own shadowy, unconscious values.