Wednesday, 3 January 2018

Review: 'No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters' by Ursula K. Le Guin

Prepare yourself for something truly dreadful: I had never read anything by Ursula K. Le Guin before No Time to Spare. I know! Somehow her Earthsea books were nowhere to be seen during my childhood and even later I never got around to it, despite actually loving Studio Ghibli's Tales of Earthsea. I didn't even know she had also written speculative fiction and short stories until this particular book. Once I saw No Time to Spare I figured it would be the perfect way to dip by toe into the deep lake that is Ursula K. Le Guin's writing and see how it felt. Surprisingly comfortable and uproariously hilarious, was my conclusion. Thanks to Houghton Mifflin Court and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 05/12/2017
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Court

Ursula K. Le Guin on the absurdity of denying your age: “If I’m ninety and believe I’m forty-five, I’m headed for a very bad time trying to get out of the bathtub.”
On cultural perceptions of fantasy: “The direction of escape is toward freedom. So what is ‘escapism’ an accusation of?”
On breakfast: “Eating an egg from the shell takes not only practice, but resolution, even courage, possibly willingness to commit crime.”
Ursula K. Le Guin has taken readers to imaginary worlds for decades. Now she’s in the last great frontier of life, old age, and exploring new literary territory: the blog, a forum where her voice—sharp, witty, as compassionate as it is critical—shines. No Time to Spare collects the best of Ursula’s online writing, presenting perfectly crystallized dispatches on what matters to her now, her concerns with this world, and her unceasing wonder at it: “How rich we are in knowledge, and in all that lies around us yet to learn. Billionaires, all of us.”
Coming in as a novice meant I had no real idea what to expect from No Time to Spare or Ursula K. Le Guin. Not only did I not really know what it is she had written, I had no idea how she wrote her blog. All I knew was that No Time to Spare was Non-Fiction, but I had no real indication whether this was going to be funny, poignant, one long rant, sad, or straight up boring. Turns out it was all of that except the latter! The purpose of this blog right here is pretty straight-forward. I review books, and if I'm not doing that I'm probably talking about something else book-related. But for  Le Guin her blog was almost like a journal where she carefully crafted entries about anything that was on her mind. This means the topics of the blog posts collected in No Time to Spare cover almost everything, whether it's ageing, cats, eggs, feminism, belief vs. facts, cats, Fantasy, the Great American Novel, war, swearing, and again, cats. By the end of No Time to Spare you have truly gained an insight into Ursula K. Le Guin, how she thinks, how she can joke and be serious at the same time. You've been taken on a tour of her mind and it is fascinating.

Like I said above,  No Time to Spare covers a massive amount of different topics and it would be impossible for me to discuss all of them and do them all justice. So I thought I'd pick two or three of her blog posts to discuss instead. In 'Having My Cake', Le Guin considers her craft, namely that of writing, as well as her youthful confusion about not being able to 'have your cake, and eat it too'. Her confusion came from the word 'have' which is often used as a synonym for 'eat' when it comes to food. What made this post so interesting was how she analysed her own confusion, how her passion for words and their infinite potential and complexity shone through her writing, as well as her joy at having found a way around her confusion. That post made me want to write. In 'A Band of Brothers, a Stream of Sisters' Le Guin analyses the difference between the grouping of men and women, using this as a way to discuss each group's place and power in the world. One sentence stood out to me in particular:
'Living in "a man's world", plenty of women distrust and fear themselves as much or more than men do.'
In a simple sentence and in straightforward prose Le Guin can make a devastating point. Because it's true, we women grow up distrusting ourselves, second-guessing other women until we truly meet them and join them. This post made me want to call my female friends. In 'Belief in Belief' Le Guin discusses the difference between believe and fact, and how, even when she wrote that post, the two were becoming intermingled. Her positioning of 'belief' and 'knowledge' as two different things, neither mutually exclusive but also not the same, was so elucidating and straightforward that I would make this post recommended reading for pretty much everyone. That post made me want to go out and have a discussion. And then, at the end of No Time to Spare, is 'Notes from a Week at a Ranch in the Oregon High Desert', which is a stunning post about nature filled with utterly beautiful and evocative writing. I have never wanted to go outside more than after this post.

Le Guin's writing needs no praise or analysis from me. What I was trying to show above was how each of the posts I read did something to me. They made me want to do something, whether it was go outside and watch the birds, play with my cat, read a book, or get angry and then figure out why. Although it doesn't trigger the emotions a fiction book may do, it is also far from leaving you unmoved. With her humorous and no-nonsense style, Le Guin gets to the heart of the matters that concern her and reveals beauty there, or a lack of. And this is where the collections tagline comes in as well: 'Thinking About What Matters'. The different blog posts show Le Guin struggling with themes over years, coming back to various topics over time and having another go at them. Seeing a brilliant mind work, in that way, is a treat in and of itself. Le Guin allows us a fascinating glimpse into her mind with her blog posts, both those collected in No Time to Spare and those on her blog. It's like having a conversation with your grandmother, who after a long life has wisdom and jokes to impart, memories and advice, all with a wink and a nudge but also a caring concern for the world you live in. No Time to Spare was a joy to read.

I give this book...

5 Universes!

I adored the variety of topics explored by Ursula K. Le Guin in No Time to Spare and many of her observations caused me to rethink some of my own opinions. It's a delight to read and never once gets boring or predictable. I'd recommend it to fans of Ursula K. Le Guin and those interested in short non-fiction.

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