Courtesy Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Two collections of essays top the recommended books for early 2018. With 87 years under her belt, Berkeley native and writer Ursula Le Guin’s swarthy sampling of blog posts in No Time to Spare is unparalleled in its clarity and authoritative voice on aging and other matters. And Oakland writer Kelly Corrigan, weighing in with 12 phrases she’s learning to live up to, pulls no punches in Tell Me More.
Le Guin was born in Berkeley in 1929 and now lives in Portland, Ore. Her writing knows few geographic boundaries. Having driven her stake into literary ground in the 1960s as a (rare) female writer of science fiction, Le Guin went on to write award-winning fantasy novels, historical fiction, and short stories. In her 80s, she dived into the blogosphere and scored hits. The author’s best blog posts are divided here into four topical sections with delightful “Annals of Pard” essays about her cat, Pard, interspersed. Keen observation makes Le Guin fun to follow, whether she is writing of a cat’s complex relationship with real life mice or feline fascination with a computer’s backup Time Machine. The life of a writer, making sense of aging, and the rewards of living are subjects confronted with thrilling honesty that invites rumination.
As a writer, she’s unafraid of plain, hard truths. (“Childhood is when you keep gaining, old age is when you keep losing,” she writes.) At the same time, Le Guin boldly declares—and winningly argues—the value of old intelligence. She issues an alert: “. . . when you meet an old person with that kind of knowledge, if you have the sense of a bean sprout you know you’re in a rare and irreproducible presence.” To read and note the contemporary relevance of “It Doesn’t Have to Be the Way It Is,” “A Band of Brothers, A Stream of Sisters,” or especially, “Clinging Desperately to a Metaphor”—is to rejoice in Le Guin’s “old intelligence.”
Corrigan is admired by readers for her books’ intimate tone and personal sharing. Confessional and emotional, it’s surprising that essays—about the deaths of best friend, Liz, and Corrigan’s father, Greenie, and disastrous interactions with family members, the difficulty of life, careers, and other troubles—result in ultimately upbeat chronicles. A few entries lack the resonance of the rest: “Yes” and “This Is It” read as off-putting and privileged and, coming from a best-selling writer, fail to evoke necessary sympathy. It’s a small complaint in light of the depth found in “I Know,” “Tell Me More,” and “No Words At All.” Corrigan, if nothing else, composes memorable reminders of precious life: a couple’s ten-thousandth “I love you” is “cause for marvel”; a kiss to comfort is delivered to her friend’s hand because during cancer treatments it is “the only place that did not hurt.”
Comfort is the connection between the no-holds Le Guin collection and Corrigan’s broad musings on the use of simple words and phrases to get through life. Escapism is overrated, they suggest. Instead, stare directly into the face of aging, death, love, teenage resistance, foul language, misguided leaders, human frailty, joy, cats, friends, food, fun, and all the rest. They write and we read: Altogether we are joined in one great adventure.
No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters by Ursula Le Guin (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017, $14.95, 240 pp.) and Tell Me More: Stories About the 12 Hardest Things I’m Learning to Say by Kelly Corrigan (Random House, 2018, $26, 234 pp.)