Thursday, January 21, 2010

Book review: Cheek by Jowl

Cheek by Jowl, Ursula K. Le Guin ***

Ursula K. Le Guin's Cheek by Jowl is a quirky little book. The cover alone has a subtitle, "talks and essays on how and why fantasy matters." And that pretty much sums up the book. It contains several of her essays and speeches about that subject.

Unfortunately, because the pieces are on similar themes, they tend to grow slightly repetitive when anthologized. Still, even though I'm more a fan of the genres she writes in than of Le Guin specifically, I found several of her points interesting.

In some cases, they were things I'd already realized, such as:

To conflate fantasy with immaturity is a rather sizable error. Rational yet non-intellectual, moral yet inexplicit, symbolic rather than allegorial, fantasy is not primitive, but primary.

I've never had much patience with the tastes of people who dismiss, usually without bothering to read the books, authors like Tolkien and Rowling. (Although, amusingly, Le Guin herself verges on dismissing Rowling. But a certain amount of negative feeling is certainly understandable, considering Rowling's astonishing sudden popularity and the fact that Le Guin wrote about a "wizarding" school 30 years before Rowling did.)

I also particularly liked this idea, which I've often found to be true:

Revisiting a book loved in childhood may be principally an indulgence in nostalgia: I knew a woman who read The Wizard of Oz every few years because it "made her remember being a child." But returning after a decade or two or three to The Snow Queen or Kim, you may well discover a book far less simple and unambiguous than the one you remembered. That shift and deepening of meaning can be a revelation both about the book and about yourself.

I also liked her essay about "animals in children's literature." Like Le Guin, I read dozens of "animal biographies," "animal novels," and stories of relationships between animals and people when I was a child, books like The Jungle Books, of course, Charlotte's Web, White Fang and The Call of the Wild, The Red Pony, Rascal and The Wolfling, Black Beauty, The Incredible Journey, Earnest Seton Thompson's Wild Animals I Have Known, The Winter of the Fisher, and many others. But I haven't re-read most of those for decades.

I suppose the main purpose of critical essays on literature is to convince the reader of something, to offer new insights about which the reader will say, "That's right," and to move the reader to action, whether it's to read some of the works discussed, or to read them in a different way, or, sometimes, not read them at all.

In that sense, although Cheek by Jowl is slightly repetitive at times, it succeeded eminently with me. I "get" fantasy, but I'm sorry to say that I'd thought I'd "outgrown" animal stories. Thanks to Le Guin's little book, I intend to begin remedying that this year.

**** Highly recommended
*** Recommended
** Meh
* Don't bother

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