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I've run into Ursula Le Guin's poetry here and there, as one does, but I found that [personal profile] sovay had an actual volume of it, so I read it while visiting her. Incredible Good Fortune is Le Guin's poems between 2000 and 2005; a lot of them are formalist exercises done for her poetry-writing group. The way I can best describe Le Guin's poetry is as calmly enjoyable: it will never be great, this is not her primary metier and she does not have that genius in her, but it will also never be bad, because she is simply too good at words for that. She writes a poetry of simple moments, small precisions, attempts to catch something for you and hold it there a moment irregardless of whether it may be something that some other poet has already caught, and sometimes it is and why should that matter? Pleasant to read, always, and it's also fun to watch her trying out these forms like finger exercises, to notice her play with the old lovely shapes. One does not often see a published poet admit to trying out a form for the form's sake, although every poet I know who uses classical forms at all has done it; it's just mostly either those go in a drawer somewhere, or the content fills them sufficiently that the poet can say with certainty that this poem is more than its form. But occasionally I like reading just a sonnet, you know, a sonnet because the poet wanted to write a sonnet and did not really care what the sonnet was going to be about, and I don't see why one should always put those off in a drawer. It's a perfectly valid creative impulse. You can see Le Guin enjoying it. So, minor work here, if taken as the work of a great writer, but if you like watching the mind of a poet work, or if you like watching specifically Le Guin's mind work (and well you might), this book is more transparent than many, free with itself, and friendly.

And then the next night on [personal profile] sovay's coffee table was a children's book about comets, Seymour Simon's The Long Journey From Space. It turned out to be an old book, as it talks about how Halley's Comet is going to come back in a few years in 1986. But the thing is, it told me things about comets that I did not, in fact, know, and that are actually still true, which is why I read it in the first place, because I was flipping through it and I noticed something I didn't know-- namely that comets can have more than one tail. I am sure this is elementary to some of you but no one had mentioned it to me. Apparently there was a sixteenth-century comet that was both visible by daylight and had seven tails. I am rather surprised Europe did not actually burn down in the expectation of apocalypse. At any rate, this was a solid description of what was then known about the motion, composition, discovery, history, etc. of comets, most of which should still be valid. And it was very well illustrated with period woodcuts of various famous comets and good astronomical photos showing the things discussed very clearly. So if you read only one obsolete children's astronomy book this year, this is a good choice. It did not, certainly, feel a waste of my time.

The Peter Sís I read the next day, however, did, even though it did not take very much time to waste. Sís is one of the great illustrators working in children's books today. His art is intricate and ornate and unlike anything else. And the subject matter of the book should have been fine-- A Small Tall Tale from the Far Far North is about Jan Welzl, a Czechoslovakian folk hero who one day in about 1893 possibly took all his worldly goods and a sled and crossed into the Canadian tundra via Siberia, there to live with the local Inuit and eventually dictate a best-selling memoir about his thirty years way up north. I say possibly because there has been some debate over the years as to whether Karel Capek actually wrote the book, although it seems to have settled on the side of not and of Welzl really having done this (although you can still find people who insist he never left Czechoslovakia). This is a very good subject for a book. I would rather like to read one sometime. All of the real information I just mentioned is given by Sís on the front cover flap and he devotes the entirety of his actual page count to pictures of the tundra. Which, I mean. In some art styles pictures of the tundra can be very striking, but Sís is an impressionist who doesn't use much in the way of details drawn from nature (he prefers human artifacts) and consequently the pictures are more minimalist than I feel is warranted. Small human dots on large backgrounds sort of thing. And you get some idea that Welzl was conflicted about the incursions of other Europeans into Inuit territory and tried to translate for the group he lived with, but it took reading the back flap of the book to learn that he tried to start an Inuit-language trading company with the men of his adopted tribe, which was a massive commercial failure due to the fact that nobody involved spoke English and they were trying to trade with the U.S.. Seriously I should not learn more information from the flaps than from the book itself. The story of Jan Welzl is full of interesting complexities, high adventure, questions of identity and the nature of authorship, and the ways that people build folk mythologies. If anyone knows a better book about it, I would appreciate you letting me know.


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March 2017

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