Dancing at the Edge of the World by Ursula K Le Guin

(Book 155) Linda hosted four of us this evening; Chris and Susan were out with a stomach bug (probably two different stomach bugs); Mary had hoped to attend despite having a medical procedure scheduled earlier in the day, but didn’t make it; and then the three girls who have been playing hooky all year. Rosalie continues to enjoy the warmer weather of her winter digs; Geri appeared noticeably improved when Linda last visited, even if Geri feels the progress is slow; and Marcia told us that Karen’s husband made it out of ICU at Northwestern and into the Shirley Ryan Rehab Center. We are rooting for Geri and Scott and a teeny (?) bit envious of Rosalie.

We sat in one of two lounge areas in Linda’s lovely apartment. My chair swiveled and almost relaxed me to sleep! We munched on a green pea and mint spread, carrots, blue cheese, Brie, crackers, and smoked almonds while Linda finished preparations for the main course and kept our wine glasses filled! We talked about the fact that we often plan our meal around something in the book, but that Ursula didn’t offer much in that regard. It wasn’t until “Over the Hills and a Great Way Off, in which Le Guin writes about her family’s visit to a friend in England that any food is mentioned. Then it is fish and chips, Chinese food, apples, beer, whiskey, egg and cress sandwiches, crackers, tomatoes and cheese, Dorset Knobs and butter cookies. I have to say, I would have liked to have tasted the Dorset Knob.

Instead of ordering in Chinese, or serving egg and cress sandwiches, Linda chose her own menu and served delicious pork tenderloins with a balsamic reduction (I don’t know if it was a reduction, I was just carried away with culinary lingo) asparagus with butter and garlic, and a delicious wild rice with butternut squash salad. It was all delicious and topped only by the dessert tart which Linda tells us included both lemon and lime. Here is a picture of the girls with the menu in place. There was an extra place because we all hoped Mary might be able to make it.

A closer look at the food! Tart was absent when photo was taken.

After the tart, I no longer longed for the Dorset Knob.

On to the book. Linda started us off by saying that she wished that Chris had been able to make it this evening, because she had communicated that she loved the book, and Linda had hoped that Chris might be able to explain the book to the rest of us. We agreed that it was a much more difficult book to read than we had expected because many of the selections were speeches that Le Guin had given at conferences and university commencements. The writing was imbued with an uncommon level of specificity. The placement of the essay that considered the difference between moral and ethical implications, so early in the book, may have been a poor choice. A few readers may have given up there. After all it had started us off so nicely with The Space Crone. Marcia and I talked last week, and she was so taken with the first essay that she wanted to share it with her daughter. I read a part of it aloud, telling the girls that it had given me a new take on my old age:

“Old age is not virginity but a third and new condition; the virgin must be celibate, but the crone need not. There was a confusion there, which the separation of female sexuality from reproductive capacity via modern contraceptives, has cleared up. Loss of fertility does not mean loss of desire and fulfillment. But it does entail a change, a change involving matters even more important — if I may venture a heresy — than sex. The woman who is willing to make that change must become pregnant with herself, at last. She must bear herself, her third self, her old age, with travail and alone. . . It may well be easier to die if you have already given birth to others or yourself, at least once before. . . It seems a pity to have a built-in rite of passage and to dodge it, evade it and pretend nothing has changed. That is to dodge and evade one’s womanhood, to pretend one’s like a man. Men, once initiated, never get the second chance. They never change again. That’s their loss, not ours. Why borrow poverty?”

We discussed the ways in which Le Guin’s views mesh very clearly with those of the group of us. Her speech to publicize the Oxfam America Fast for the Hungry in 1981 at the Portland Food Bank included: “No home worth living in has for its cornerstone the hunger of those who built it. . . the city we’re trying to build, to found, is not [built] on hoarding and moneymaking and hunger, but on sharing and justice. A house that deserves its children.”

In her address to the Portland branch of the National Abortion Rights Action League in 1982, she shared her personal story within the framework of a princess who needed rescue when it was illegal. When the prince was asked for his help “he went home to his family palace and hid in the throne room.” Her conclusion was oddly prescient in light of recent events: “We are not going back to the Dark Ages. We are not going to let anybody in this country have that kind of power over any girl or woman. There are great powers, outside the government and in it, trying to legislate the return of darkness. We are not great powers. But we are the light. Nobody can put us out. May you all shine very bright and steady, today and always.”

Whose Lathe?” is a piece that Le Guin wrote for the Forum section of her regional newspaper in 1984, after a local librarian informed Le Guin that one of her books was to have a censorship hearing. “The man who was asking that it be withdrawn stated his objections to the following elements in the book: fuzzy thinking and poor sentence structure; a mention of homosexuality; a character who keeps a flask of brandy in her purse, and who remarks that her mother did not love her. (It seemed curious to me that he did not mention the fact that this same character is a Black woman whose lover/husband is a White Man. I had the feeling that this was really what he hated in the book and that he was afraid to say so; but that was only my feeling.)” I couldn’t help but think of Jodi Picoult, who I saw on TikTok recently fighting the same fight to TikTok’s young audience. (No explanation for why I’m there.)

I love Le Guin’s take on trains in “Room 9, Car 1430” that is: ” Why should we be forced to undergo the increasing discomfort, danger and indignity that the airlines inflict on their passengers? Trains are not deliberately overbooked. Train stations are downtown — not in some dreary boondock twenty-five dollars away from where you want to be.” (Those are 1985 dollars.) But my favorite piece was “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction“:

“So long as culture was explained as originating from and elaborating upon the use of long hard objects for sticking, bashing, and killing, I never thought that I had or wanted, any particular share in it. . . Wanting to be fully human too, I sought for evidence that I was; but if that’s what it took, to make a weapon and kill with it, then evidently I was either extremely defective as a human being, or not human at all. That’s right, they said. What you are is a woman. Possibly not human at all, certainly defective. Now be quiet while we go on telling the Story of the Ascent of Man the Hero. Go on, say I, wandering off towards the wild oats, with Oo Oo in the sling and little Oom carrying the basket. You just go on telling how the mammoth fell on Boob and how Cain fell on Abel and how the bomb fell on Nagasaki and how the burning jelly fell on the villagers and how the missiles will fall on the Evil Empire, and all the other steps in the Ascent of Man.” Well, I can’t type the entire essay here, so if you’re going to read only one piece, I suggest the Carrier Bag.

As I told the girls, another piece “Places, Names” gave me a great idea for my family’s Third Annual Summer Road Trip. Le Guin’s VW journey starting in Portland in June of 1981 and her recitation of places and names she saw along the way, gave me the idea of outlining Road Trip Poetry for my grandson. One poem starts with “something he had for breakfast” on the first line, two road signs he saw on the second line, the number of miles to our next destination on the third line, the name of an attraction on the fourth line, two unusual objects seen today on the fifth line and a new word or expression he heard on the sixth/final line. That’s the first one — I’m working on other formats. Madlibs/Roadtrip/Ursula K Le Guin-inspired poetry.

Apologies for not doing this amazing, intelligent woman justice. I’ve admitted to more people than the girls in the club that some of her writing went straight over my head. I’ll hope that some of the girls add their comments. I’m so tired of the comments always being Russian or porn. You know, it was fun at first, but it just doesn’t hold up.

Our next meeting will be at Sharon’s on Tuesday, April 18th to discuss The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander.

One Reply to “Dancing at the Edge of the World by Ursula K Le Guin”

  1. I was really sorry to miss the meeting, not just for the delicious food but also because I really did love the book. I had never read any Leguin, because I don’t like scifi that much, but my husband says The Left Hand of Darkness is incredible, and now I feel like maybe I should read that. I think a lot of her fiction probably dealt with the same moral and ethical principles and dilemmas that the pieces in this book did. She made so many points so succinctly (a skill I’ll be working at forever), and not only with huge intelligence but also warmth and humor. I wish I could have sat around with her for an evening. In fact, she’d be one of the three people I’d invite to a dinner party as interviewees are asked in the NYT Book Review. One of the other two might be Groucho Marx, but I digress.

    I agree that the book is a collection of pieces showing that she was always thinking about morals and ethics. The abortion story illustrates what I think of as the difference: it wouldn’t ordinarily be considered ethical to break the law and have an illegal abortion, but it was moral, despite the fact that women are STILL being told by men and colluding women. Here’s her explanation, which should ble adopted by all pro-choice activists:

    “…without hesitation, they [her parents] had resolved to break the law, to conspire to commit a felony. And they did so in the reasoned and deeply felt convcition that it was right, that indeed it was their responsibility, to do so. ”
    When she said she felt cowardly, dishonest, evading the consdquence of her own action, her father said “That’s right. You are. That cowardice, dishonesty, evasion, is a lesser sin than the crass irresponsibility of sacrificing your training, your talent, and the children you will want to have, in order to have one nobody wants to have.”
    Later: “she had three desired and beloved children, none of whom would have been born if her first pregnancy had gone to term…If any birth is better than no birth, and more births are better than fewer births, as the right-to-life people insist, then they should approve of my abortion, which resulted in three babies instead.” TOUCHE.
    About abortion not being wrong:
    “What was wrong was not knowing how to prevent getting pregnant. What was wrong was my ignorance. To legislate that ignorance, that’s the crime. I’m ashamed, she thought, for letting bigots keep me ignorant, and for falling in love with a weak, selfish man. I am deeply ashamed. But I’m not guilty. Where does guilt come in? I did what I had to do so that I could do the work I was put here to do. I will do that work. that’s what it’s all about. It’s about responsibility.”

    Leguin was revered for her gender-busting ideas in her sci-fi, and if I had thought about her rationale for preferring the pronoun “they” as a singular, I would have avoided a lot of pedantic resistance in the work I do. Granted, I was trying to prevent confusion in meaning by avoiding the singular they, but Leguin points out a lot of pros for singular they: it was the norm in English through the 16th century, we use it all the time in the vernacular, it’s more economical than “he or she.” I knew all that. I think as an occupational hazard of working in publishing and trying to reflect evolving society in print, I got snagged by recent trends and didn’t even think about what Leguin points out:
    It was men who decided that the default pronoun should be masculine. In my work, what we were trying to do was reverse that, and all we had was the clunky “he or she.” Then we started alternating between the feminine and masculine pronoun from passage to passage in books where that worked better than recasting the prose to be plural. (And we put an Author’s Note in the front matter of books to explain why so we didn’t offend anyone.) But we were still REACTING to a decision made by men–that the default singular was “he.” Having read everything there is to read on this subject, I was still blown away at Leguin’s perspective, namely let’s look at where this problem arose! Yikes.

    I admit without shame that I skimmed some pieces that included a lot of literary references to and quotes from sources I’m not familiar with, but I loved all the themes discussed. I never got past 54% in my Kindle, and I don’t know if I’ll ever read her book reviews, but I do intend to check out the rest of the book and see what I feel like reading.

    I was really astounded by her understanding of humans and her deeply moral and “radical” approach to life.

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