Mar 25 2018

Ursula Le Guin

Ursula Le Guin died recently. There was lots of information about her death in the news and social media. The general consensus on Twitter and Facebook was that it was so terribly sad that she had died. For her family and close friends, yes of course, it must have been very sad. But I didn’t know her personally. I only knew her through her books. And as far as I’m concerned, she is still alive because of those books.

I first started reading Science Fiction when I was 11 years old; The Martian Chronicles was the novel that got me hooked. By the time I was 14 I had gone through all my Dad’s collection of the classics; Heinlein, Asimov, Bradbury, Clark. I was a freshman in High School when I discovered Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings;  it had just been published in paperback in the US and it was on the list of books my English teacher let us order from some book club. For the next 7 to 10 years, Tolkien’s fantasy world of Middle-earth was what occupied much of my reading time and shifted me from Science Fiction to Fantasy. During that time, I kept searching for other fantasy novels whose worlds were equal to Tolkien’s. I bought a lot of books that mostly left me feeling very disappointed. My bookshelf was filled with stories about elves and dwarfs and magic that I judged harshly and barely got through without lots of internal complaining. Tolkien remained king. Then sometime in the very early 70s I picked up a paperback copy of A Wizard of Earthsea. I don’t remember how I heard about it. Maybe I just liked the cover illustration. The inside content was even better. I went on to buy each subsequent book in the series. I bought The Tombs of Atuan and The Farthest Shore as soon as their paperback versions were released.

Also in the early 70s, I discovered The Science Fiction Shop. It was a tiny crowded bookstore in Greenwich Village that only sold Fantasy and Science Fiction. It was crowded with books, not people. It was the first and only one of its kind in NYC – Science Fiction hadn’t gotten as popular as it would become after the success of Star Wars. I still remember how it felt that first time I walked through its doors and looked around. You could see the entire store from the door. There were a few geeky looking guys amongst the racks and me! I was in heaven!

My method of choosing a new book was simple. If I found an author whose book I liked, I went to the shelf where their name was and bought another of their books. I kept buying their books till I ran out of new ones and then I went on to find another author. After Earthsea, I spent the rest of the 70s and 80s reading all of Le Guin’s books – none of which were fantasy but real Science Fiction, set in the far distant future. I read all of the Hainish novels and all her miscellaneous stuff too. She became one of my favorite authors of that time.

Books can be read for different reasons. In some books, the plot is the most important aspect and that is what you remember it for; in other books, you remember very vivid characters and not so much what they did and in some very rare books, you remember the ideas. Le Guin’s books left me with remembered ideas. Before writing this post, I had to go to Wikipedia to remind myself of the plots and the names of characters but the ideas I didn’t need help with. There have been three strong ideas from her books that have stayed with me ever since I first read them so long ago.

A Wizard of Earthsea taught me that names are very important and they have power; that everyone has their own “secret” name that only their closet friends can know. To know someone’s real name gives them power over you. I loved this idea when I first read it. Ever since I was a child, I hated my name – Hilarie. It was so odd. No one was named that! And it was spelled weird too. I wished I was named something normal like Mary or Sue or Carol. My mother used to console me by saying that when I grew up I could use just my middle name, Ruth, which at that time seemed a more normal name, to my way of thinking. And then I grew up! And couldn’t imagine using Ruth as my name. Hilarie was my true name – my name of power – that no one else had. And now in the world of social media and the internet I have discovered the wonderful reality of having an unusual name. There is no one else named like me. Even though it’s not a secret it nevertheless belongs only to me. And I find that wonderful.

I love when a writer of speculative fiction creates an entire cosmology with many stories and worlds to fill it. Isaac Asimov did this in all his Galactic Empire stories, Iain M. Banks did it with his novels set in The Culture. My favorite authors have been those who do a really believable job at world-building. You can see and feel and smell the worlds they create. Le Guin built her worlds with a deft hand in her novels and stories about the planets that belonged to the Ekumen, a loosely connected league of worlds which had once been seeded and colonised by a long-gone civilisation from a planet called Hain.

My biggest take-away from the Hainish novels was the idea that the Ekumen, in their attempt to reunite the Hainish worlds, sends only one person at a time, a single envoy, to a newly rediscovered planet; a planet that had long since forgotten their Hainish heritage. In the Hainish cosmology, faster-than-light space travel doesn’t exist, travel through the galaxy takes time. If you travel to another solar system, you say goodbye to everyone you once knew. The job of envoy must have been a very lonely assignment; one that often ended in death for many of them. I liked the idea that the best way to convince a race (or a whole world) to join you was not by sending a huge military force but to send one person who speaks for you, to whoever will listen and if the first person fails, you send another. The Left Hand of Darkness was the most important novel in this series and a book I often recommend to friends who “don’t read science fiction”.

Published in 1969, Left Hand is also a fantastic examination about gender, and how it affects the way we relate to the people we know. Geffen is the name of the planet in the book; a world undergoing a planet-wide ice age at the same time as its industrial revolution. Among the Hainish worlds, Geffen was different. Its people, while from the same original human stock, had mutated from having 2 distinct sexes to a race of beings who were “sexless” except for about 6 days each month when they went into “kemmer” becoming either male or female. Each individual had no way of knowing in advance which they would become. The same individual could both father a child and give birth to a child. All other days of the month, they were just human, neither male nor female, yet at the same time both. To this odd world comes an envoy from The Ekumen, a human male originally born on Earth. Through the eyes and emotions of Genly Ai, Le Guin examines the various ways gender affects our lives.  Genly eventually learns to understand and even love a person who seems on the surface totally different from everything he had come to assume about being human.

In these #metoo days discussing gender discrimination and all the talk about the small percentage of women working in many diverse fields, this book should be required reading by anyone who thinks about the importance gender plays in our lives.

Click to see larger image of these other Leguin books I also have.

Click to see larger image of these other Le Guin books I also have.

When I moved permanently to Sweden, I packed up all my New York books in boxes and that is where they have been for over 20 years. I never had enough room to unpack them or shelf space to display them. But my storage room where the boxes have been patiently awaiting my return will soon have to be given up – the lease has been cancelled. I still don’t have enough book shelves for my weathered, yellow-paged paperbacks. So I am in the process now of revisiting them again for a short time; not rereading but reminding myself of the stories that helped to make me who I am. Some of those books I can say goodbye to without a second thought. But some of them I will thumb though softly, revisiting them with love. Le Guin’s stories are among those and like with any old love, I will fondly remember them forever.

 

 

 


Aug 17 2015

Obsession (part 1)

Obsession /əbˈsɛʃən/
According to Webster’s dictionary, obsession is a state in which someone thinks about someone or something constantly or frequently especially in a way that is not normal.

As anyone who has had contact with me the last 8 or 9 months can tell you, I have become a person with a bit of a one-track mind. I have become obsessed. I cannot have any sort of conversation with anyone without referring, at least once, to the object of my obsession. I usually consider myself a person with a relatively wide range of interests and not having a particularly addictive personality but there you have it – I am obsessed, addicted really. I actually haven’t felt this way since way back in the late 90s when I would spend hours late at night reading all the web forums about Peter Jackson’s production of The Lord of the Rings.

I blame my friend Roz – its all her fault.
Sometime last year, 2014, she tells me during one of our many SKYPE conversations that she had discovered a really good TV series and if I got the chance I should watch it. She kept talking about it every time we talked so finally just to get her off my case, I asked my son to find it for me. Finally one evening I sat down on the sofa and watched the first episode. As soon as it ended, I immediately watched the second episode and the third. I would have also watched the fourth but it was getting very late and I had to get up the next day to go to work. But by then, I was hooked.

Claire and Jamie

It’s all about how he looks at her.

The 16 episode show is called Outlander and is produced by an American TV channel called STARZ. It’s producer/showrunner is Ron D. Moore, the man responsible for the re-imagining of Battlestar Galactica, a science fiction TV series that I had seen and really liked. Outlander is based on a book of the same name by Diana Gabaldon which was written in 1991 and has since been followed by 7 more books. Gabaldon is now in the process of writing the ninth book in the series. A second TV season is already in production, based on the second book in the series.

By now, I have watched each of the 16 episodes at least 3 or more times. I’ve just finished reading the 8th book and am in the process of re-reading Dragonfly in Amber, the second book, in preparation for the upcoming second season. I even watch all the interviews with cast and crew that I can find on Youtube. I read all the twitter posts relating to the TV show. I’m even a member of the Outlander-Sweden Facebook group. I know, weird right?

Quick Synopsis
The story begins in the mid 1940s just after the end of the Second World War. 27-year old Claire Randall has been a combat army nurse during the war and is now reunited with her husband Frank as they travel to Inverness in the Scottish Highlands for a second honeymoon. She goes up to a hill with a circle of standing stones, puts her hands on the tall center stone and the next thing she knows, she is waking up in the mid 1740s – 1743 to be exact. OK, there you go – there’s the Sci-fi/fantasy angle coming into play. But after that first bit of time traveling, that’s pretty much it. After wandering around, dazed and confused, Claire is soon rescued or taken prisoner (depending on how you look at it) by members of the Mackenzie clan and taken to their main fortress, Castle Leoch. The rest of the story tells of how she tries to get back to her own time and how she slowly falls in love with the other main character, Jamie Fraser, a tall, articulate highlander wearing a kilt.

First off, the TV production is incredibly well made with very high production standards. Amazing sets. As a former Fashion Design student at Pratt Institute, one of the biggest pet peeves I have when watching historical dramas is that the clothing is so wrong – The big skirts don’t have any petticoats, there are no corsets in corset style dresses, the clothes all look brand new, there is too much “modern” design in it, etc etc. No problem in Outlander. The clothes the actors wear – from the main leads to even the smallest extras – all looked lived in. They have weight and bulk to them, substance. The shirts the men wear look like they have been worn for weeks and weeks and have been slept in too. You can almost smell them just by looking at them! Much of the show is filmed on location in Scotland and the scenery is beautiful and real. No CGI needed here! Real castles, real mountains, real shacks. People get dirty, for real! OK, sooo? There are other TV series that have good production values, maybe not many but they exist.

Secondly, they didn’t reinvent the story to fit conventional TV plots. They dared to film where Gabaldon takes her characters, even to the darkest corners. Though the scripts and the action change a bit from their source material, the dialog is taken almost directly from Gabaldon’s book. And while I don’t feel she always writes the best descriptive passages, she writes great dialog! Especially between her two main characters, Claire Randell and Jamie Fraser. Her characters feel real with intense inner lives not just superficial reactions. They are alive!

Then, thirdly, there’s the actors. No big famous names here, bringing all their previous personas with them.  The two main leads, Claire and Jamie are played by two relatively unknown actors, both in their mid-30s. Caitriona Balfe from Ireland plays Claire and Scottish Sam Heughan plays Jamie.  They inhabit their characters. They bring Gabaldon’s written characters off the page and give them body and form. Beautifully.

But why am I so hooked?
My reading choices almost always consist of hard science fiction, or sometimes fantasy, which this really isn’t. I don’t read romance novels and in all honesty, I probably would never have picked up these books if it hadn’t been for the TV series. And the Outlander series of books seems like the classic historical romance type of novel. A type of book which, excluding Jane Austen novels, I stopped reading when I was about 16 or so. Some of my favorite movies have been Wuthering Heights (only the original film version), Gone with the Wind and Dr. Zivago but I didn’t make it a habit to read the book versions. Gone with the Wind with its Civil War background follows the journey of Scarlett O’Hara as she matures from a spoiled 16-year old to a mature woman who finally realizes who she has loved all along. The Russian Revolution plays out as Zivago, forced by war out of his ordinary life, finds and ultimately suffers the loss of the great love of his life, Lara, but leaves behind The Lara Poems that immortalizes their love. While Wuthering Heights only has the wild Yorkshire moors as its background it also is about a great love that haunts Heathcliff for 40 years until he dies and can be reunited with his beloved Cathy. What Outlander has in common with those three movies is that it is a great love story that takes place over time and space against a large historical background with much longing and suffering. So it fits right in there with my favorite canon. But why have I been watching it over and over again and even reading and loving the books? For it to be having such a powerful effect on me it must be working on many different levels.

Tons of articles about this series have already been written and what many of them say is that this is a show about a strong female lead and told from her point of view. That it is Claire’s story. The female gaze they are calling it. That it is also a story of a marriage. That it has lots of great sex. And lots of violent and horrible scenes. That it is unafraid. That the sex and violence is not gratuitous. It has been described as “as good as, if not better” than Game of Thrones.

As I said, from the first episode, I was hooked. Resourceful, self-confident ex-army nurse Claire Randell was thrown into 1743 Scotland and forced to figure out how to survive there: a place with different customs, different language, different food, housing, weather. Just plain different. And I could relate. I found myself in a similar situation 34 years ago. I got there by airplane not a standing stone but Stockholm Sweden was a whole lot different from the New York City I was coming from. It had a different language, a different culture, a different way of doing things and a tall handsome man to take care of me when I didn’t know how to get somewhere or understand something. The first apartment I lived in didn’t even have hot running water in it. How’s that for different? I watched Claire in that first episode and I saw myself.  I loved the fact that, like me with Swedish, she couldn’t understand what the Scots were saying when speaking Gaelic. Been there.  I had to keep watching to see how she managed.

And she managed. She wouldn’t let anyone intimidate her. She stated her mind, gave as good as she got, fought back and wouldn’t give up. I liked that about her. She was a new addition to my panoply of strong female characters that I had gathered over the years; Jane Fonda in Barbarella, Diana Riggs’ Emma Peel in the Avengers, Ripley from Alien, Sarah Connor from Terminator, Starbuck from the re-imaged Battlestar Galactica – just to name a few. And now Claire Beauchamp Randall Fraser. She was someone who I was willing to follow along in her story. So on to the next episode. And the next. And each time over again.

But its not just Claire that catches my interest. There’s James Alexander Malcolm MacKenzie Fraser too. And without him, Claire is only half herself. Yes, he is very attractive, that Jamie. Sam Heughan is perfect in the role. In no other photos pre-Outlander is he as fantastic as he is as Jamie Fraser. Because quite simply its not just about what he looks like. There are a lot of good looking guys out there in TV land. Its more about how he looks at you – in this case at Claire. But as I already said I relate to Claire so I can pretend he is looking at me too. He sees her. He listens and hears her. From the very first moment they meet, he recognizes her, in some mysterious way. I have my theories about that but I’ll write about that later.

Many of the reviews and fan posts say that this is a story about Claire. But I disagree. It isn’t about Claire. Claire is the one who tells the story (most of the time) but the story is about Jamie. From the time we meet her until the latest book, Claire is pretty much who she is to start with. She learns more, she becomes a doctor, she ages but she is still herself. From the moment we first meet her she knows what she is meant to do with her life and the 2 men who both love her, recognize and respect that about her. The real story is how, Jamie, this young man without responsibilities that she meets in an alien place grows and matures to become the man he was destined to be – a true leader of men. The kind of man that is able and willing to take responsibility for the people within his sphere of influence. A type of man we see very little of these days. Which makes him all the more unique and admirable and exciting to watch. OK, and he is also nice to look at.

I have always liked stories that take place over a long period of time, watching how things or people change. Most novels or movies or stories are just a short cutout piece of a longer tale. Cinderella ends with “and they lived happily ever after”. But what kind of life does she really have with her prince? We never get to find out. Gone with the Wind ends with Scarlett promising herself that she will get Rhett back but that’s where it ends and we don’t get to see if she does. But Gabaldon doesn’t want to just give us a short piece out of the lives of Jamie and Claire: They meet, fall in love, he rescues her, she rescues him, they go to France, they come back to Scotland, they experience a terrible war and then they are forced to part probably forever. Sad ending but great love story. In the normal case of such stories we would never know what else happens. But Gabaldon is still writing the story. As of book 8 they are in their 50s or 60s, still in love, still having adventures, still together. I can’t wait till book 9 comes out in a few years. In the meantime I have season 1 to watch over and over again. And season 2 to look forward to.


Dec 26 2011

Days

6:30am
The alarm on my cell phone rings. As I reach over to turn it off, I think, “OK, I made it through another night without any middle-of -the-night phone calls.”

A new day begins.

My schedule here at Monroe Village is pretty much the same each day: Wake up at 6:30, shower, get dressed, put on my face and by 8:30 or so head out the door to the “cafe” for my complementary breakfast. I’m a regular there so all I have to do is show up, for Laurie or Michael to see me and say “the usual?” and in a few minutes there are 2 eggs, scrambled, with toast, bacon and a cup of fruit on my table. I get the coffee myself.

By the time I get to my mom’s room, they have already served her a breakfast of various colored puréed foods of which they managed to feed her a small portion.

I go over to her bed and say hi to her. I stroke her cheek, trying to get her to see me. Often she is talking out loud when I come in but not speaking any real words, rather just some kind of nonsense mixed with moans and crying. Sometimes when I say her name Evelyn, she manages to respond with a weak “yes” so I feel that she is in there somewhere. But she no longer has much ability to express what is going on inside her. I think of the Science Fiction story by Harlan Ellison called, ‘‘I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream’’.

The rest of my day is spent there in her room. I feed her lunch, give her something to drink. While she sleeps I often sit at my computer but when she is awake I mostly sit by her side, talking to her, trying to reassure her, to calm her. Often I just sit there looking at her. And I think. And the thoughts are not good ones. They make me feel like a terrible person, a terrible daughter, self-centered and selfish.

And this is what I think: Three weeks ago, my mother’s doctor told me she had a few days to a week to live. Within days I rushed over here. And that was 3 weeks ago. And here I still sit, by her side, waiting, waiting, waiting…… Why is she still alive? How long will she live? My time here in New Jersey has a limit. She needs to die before I have to leave and I need to have time to organize a funeral. And I feel like a terrible terrible person – that I want my mother to die. I try to convince myself that I am thinking of her. That it must be horrible for her to just lie there, unable to move or talk or to be truly alive. But really its me that I am concerned about.

And as I sit there, trying to spoon baby food into her mouth, I sit there with this terrible weight of guilt on my back. And yet, at the exact same time I also know that I am being a good daughter.

What one feels and what one knows to be rational and true are not always the same thing. You can feel one thing and at the exact same time think something completely different. Is this the kind of complexity that makes us truly human?

And then another day is over.


Oct 7 2011

A good man

October 15 is the yahrtzeit or anniversary of my father’s death. He died in 1997. My mother called me here in Sweden a few days before, to tell me that the doctors had said there was nothing more they could do for him and she had decided to unhook him from the machines he was attached to. My husband booked me on a flight to the States the next day. Mom picked me up at Newark airport and we drove directly to the hospital. I spent the rest of the afternoon and evening sitting there next to my dad, holding his hand. I don’t know if he knew if I was there or not, but I like to think he had been waiting till I came. That night, sometime around midnight or so, the hospital called to say my dad, Milton Cutler, had peacefully passed away.

me and my dad

me and my dad

While my mom kept herself busy making funeral arrangements, I sat down at her computer and wrote a eulogy for my father. I thought those words had been lost long ago on some old hard disk. Recently, while I was helping my mom move, I found a printed copy of the eulogy and brought it home with me to Stockholm. Now on the anniversary of his death 14 years ago I want to give that eulogy once again. Here it is.

My father was not the kind of man who created a stir when he entered a room. He was a little man, almost petite, and spoke softly. He wasn’t the kind of person who could tell riveting stories or captivate an audience. But I remember when I was little, he used to read to me before I went to sleep. He didn’t read to me ordinary run-of-the-mill bedtime stories. He read me Kon Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl and Aku Aku, the book about the statues on Easter Island. He liked those kind of stories and that was what he found interesting to read to me. For my tenth birthday I received a subscription to National Geographic from him and long after I moved away from home, the issues kept coming every month to the house, with my name on them, but not really for me.

He also loved Science Fiction and that love I’ve inherited. I read my first Sci Fi book when I was 11 – The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury, it was Daddy’s book. After that I read every Sci Fi book Daddy had till I started to buy my own.

He was a quiet man who rarely voiced his own opinions or demanded to have things his way. I think he came from a generation for whom the expression “self-fulfillment” would cause a feeling of discomfort and the idea of “doing your own thing” was an alien concept. For him, it was more important, to do the right thing. He didn’t drink, he didn’t gamble, he didn’t chase after women. His life wasn’t easy but he stuck with it. He worked hard and tried to give the people he loved in his life as much as he was able to. And when his time came, there wasn’t much time left to do the things he had wanted to do.

My father was one of those small, inconsequential men that the world out there doesn’t take much notice of. But he was a good man and in this day and age, just simply being a good man is something worthy of our respect, deserving of our praise and should be cherished in our memories.


Oct 18 2010

The Good Wife = Perfect Television

Perfect

Perfect

I just finished watching The Good Wife on TV tonight. Its the only story-arc series I’m bothering to keep track of at the moment. Television series that have a story-arc are more difficult to get attached to. It means you have to allocate the time to make sure you watch it every week. If you miss an episode its like skipping a whole chapter occasionally while reading a book. I like this show enough to make the effort. I’m not really a detective/murder/police/lawyer genre person. I usually read Sci Fi for my escapist entertainment. My problem with crime/lawyer etc stories is that even after they tell me who did it I still don’t understand how it got done. Or if its in book form I frequently want to read the ending after the first few chapters. It helps me to figure out if I want to spend the time finishing the book. But it doesn’t really give away the plot. Even if you read the ending you still don’t know HOW A got to Z. But, it peaks my curiosity to read the end.

Anyway, back to The Good Wife. I like the main character, the wife. I remember the actress from ER. Boy does she look different now! She has really curly hair like me but now its so sleek, I’m jealous. Alicia, the wife is perfect. Smart and rarely a hair out of place. Perfect eyebrows. Perfect clothes, classic, always matching, sober colors, that fit her perfectly and look great. She is always collected and in control all the time. Knows what to say and even if she is taken by surprise rarely ever gives away anything she is thinking. Of course its easy for her – she has a crew of hairdressers and stylists at hand to make sure she stays looking that way and a script to tell her what to say. But I’ve run across women like that in my life. I can’t say that I ever became good friends with one though. Mainly because they intimidate the shit out of me. They are the kind of person I used to wish I could be but know that I never will be.

BK (before kid) I used to Dress. I liked clothes. They were my mask. I used to sew my clothes and I did it well. My costume fit me perfectly. I wore makeup (still do that) and spent a lot of time on trying to force my hair into doing what I wanted it to do. (gave up on that) But even though I easily admit to being a control freak, I was never an over-achiever. Even in school. If I got an A easily, I was happy with that. If I got a B and would have had to work hard to make it into an A, well I was happy enough with the B.

Actually there are two kinds of perfect. The first type is the kind of perfect that an over-achiever has had to work really hard to achieve and which somehow, nevertheless, always seems a bit forced and false. Then there’s the second kind – the perfect kind of perfect. That kind of perfect never seems false or even over-worked; it just seems perfectly natural. It has to do with Style, with a capital S. Grace Kelly had that. So did Katherine Hepburn. And so does Alicia.

Actually, I like Alicia, the good wife, because she is everything I am not. Even when I used to DRESS there was always something that kept it from being perfect. I definitely wasn’t classic style to begin with. I once had an outfit of black slacks with big yellow polka-dots, paired together with a yellow blouse with tiny black polka dots. I wore them with a black belt and a pair of black earrings that had small yellow and white polka-dots on them. So what wasn’t perfect, one might ask? Well in my mind, the yellow blouse wasn’t exactly the same shade of yellow as the yellow polka-dots on the pants. Close but not perfect. For a control-freak that’s important. But not being an over-achiever, it was good enough for me. I realized that I was never going to be the second kind of perfect. The kind that just comes naturally.

Good enough

Good enough

Because its not just about the clothes. Its the good wife’s whole manner. She’s so serious, on the outside at least. But not me. I’m serious on the inside, but not on the outside. Making a joke and being silly is more my style. I don’t mull over every word before I say it. I just blurt it out. I’m not so sure if that’s good or bad but I don’t really care any more. The only thing I want to be taken seriously for is the work I do. That’s important. And that the people that I care about know that I care about them. That’s also important. But I’ve pretty much given up trying to be any kind of perfect. Good enough is good enough for me. I can enjoy watching perfect people on TV and that’s just perfect.