Inspired by the success of the first two Catwings books, we bought the other two online (not from Amazon). They arrived a week apart and in the wrong order, so Ruby got the story in a nonlinear fashion, but it didn’t seem to matter. Here they are in their correct order.
Alexander is a kitten who believes in his own wonderfulness, and is tremendously brave in his home environment. He ventures out into the world where he meets with actual danger and finds himself stuck up in a tree and terrified, when along comes little black Jane-with-wings from Catwings Return to help him down.
The two kittens develop a strong bond, and (spoiler alert!), Alexander is able to help Jane face the early terrifying experience that has left her functionally mute, and having faced it regain her capacity to speak
After having this read to her once, Ruby cast her Nana and Pop as various cats and herself as Jane, and then Alexander, but mainly Jane, and a good time was had by all. The book was then read several more times. Thelma, who barely features in the narrative to my mind, is firmly entrenched as Ruby’s favourite character, possibly because she is the oldest of the Catwings siblings, the big sister, a role Ruby revels in in real life.
Jane takes centre stage here. Bored with the safe life on Overhill Farm, she sets out on an adventure. The others all warn her that if human beings (not ‘beans’) see a cat with wings they’ll either put her in a cage or take her to a laboratory. As it happens, Jane finds herself for a time a captive TV celebrity.
When I saw the title of this book, I thought it was going to be about the Catwings’ mother, Mrs Jane Tabby, and I’m a little ashamed that I wasn’t all that interested. Mrs Jane Tabby does make an appearance at the end, and the whole series finishes, like the first book, with human-to-cat kindness.
I hope Ruby keeps on loving these books, because at the moment I’ve got them on a par with where the Wild Things Are or The Sign on Rosie’s Door for enduring readability.
I blogged about this book some years ago, here. It was a gift from the author to Ruby, back when looking at pictures of cats was what Ruby did by way of reading.
She asks for it often just now, and a measure of her engagement with it is a question she asked last week as we were out walking: ‘Poppa, do you think Rose Quong is a beautiful name?’ Rose Quong makes a bigger impression than Nellie Melba, and she’s very interest to know if Edith Cowan had babies.
Ursula K Le Guin, Illustrated S D Schindler, Catwings (Orchard Books 1988) –––––, Catwings Return (Orchard Books 1989)
Yesterday, Ruby decided that she’d had enough of the pile of books in our living room, and raided the child-height shelf in the second bedroom. She pulled out a boxed set of Roald Dahl, but before she could get too committed to it I reached for the Catwings books. I thought they’d be ‘too old’ for a three-and-a-half-year-old, but I was delighted to be found wrong.
Mrs Jane Tabby was surprised when she gave birth to four kittens with wings, but she didn’t feel the need to find an explanation. Having dismissed the issue of ‘How come?’, the book moves on to the much more interesting question of ‘What then?’
The kittens were born under a dumpster (which I read as ‘skip’ to Ruby) in an alley, and their mother rightly fears for their safety. In addition to the dangers faced by ordinary kittens, they run the extra risk of being abducted by curious or exploitative humans and subjected to at best humiliation and at worst vivisection, though the book tactfully avoids being explicit about the latter. So their mother sends the kittens off into the world by themselves to find a safe place. After a number of adventures, involving injuries and close shaves, and hostility, especially from birds who don’t want cats invading their airspace, they are eventually coaxed into contact with two human children. The last two lines, which I won’t quote here, echoing Leontes’ wonderful line in The Winter’s Tale, ‘O, she’s warm,’ and have almost the same emotional force.
Catwings Return takes up the story just a little later. Two of the kittens – Harriet and James – decide to go back to the city to visit their mother, and there, in a row of buildings that are being demolished, they discover a tiny black kitten, who also has wings but is too young to fly. Alone, filthy, starving and terrified, it can say only two words, a desolate ‘Me’ and a spitting ‘Hate!’ Of course, the older kittens befriend the little one and all three are reunited with their mother before rejoining their siblings. But there is genius in the scenes where Harriet and James calmly, purringly surround the terrified defensive little one with love and reassurance.
The Emerging Artist and I read one book each – no mean feat for the EA, given that she had cataract surgery two days earlier. Occasionally Ruby would want to turn the page before the EA or I had finished reading it, but she never insisted when we said she needed to wait. S D Schindler’s brilliant illustrations held her attention, especially by setting the mostly impossible task of figuring out which kitten was which. But she also remained rapt for the pages without illustration. In the second book, Thelma and Roger are the two kittens who stay behind. Ruby, who had barely met Thelma in its opening pages, kept asking after her all through Harriet and James’s adventures, and was very pleased when she was found safe and happy at the end. Roger didn’t provoke similar concerns – I suspect gender bias.
We only read the books once each, but we had Catwings themed play for some time afterwards: ‘You be the black kitten and say “Hate!” and I’ll purr at you.’
And so the late great Ursula K Le Guin enters the world of another new person. How good is that?
There are three more books in the series, which I will now go in search of.
[I went searching for my other blog posts about UKLG, and found that they hadn’t been transferred from my old, pre-Wordpress blog. So I’m fixing that.]
The Art Student and I have just spent a couple of days in Singapore en route to Turkey. Apart from the fabulously welcome heat and the pleasure of walking about in an unfamiliar place, I’ve noticed:
the absence of graffiti, to the extent that an installation in the Singapore Art Museum was accompanied by a note saying that even though graffiti was awfully antisocial it could sometimes inspire artworks (though we did see a couple of lonely tags under a bridge near some equally rare skateboarders).
excellent, cheap underground rail, with a ticketing system that’s cumbersome for blow-ins like us who just want single-trip tickets, who have to pay a refundable deposit of a dollar on each ticket (the tickets are plastic – an anti-littering strategy?), reclaim able only from a machine at the other end
‘Do Not’ signs that indicate customary practices: I only saw one ‘pedestrians must use crossing’, and it was in one of the few places where they mostly didn’t; ‘Do not lean on door’ was on the wall above two young men engrossed in their phones and leaning as if there was no other way to ride the subway; and my favourite, ‘$1000 fine for riding here’, failed to deter the gentleman who came zooming past us, who looked as if he wouldn’t have managed a fine of a tenth that size.
a definite child-friendly feel to the art galleries: Sakarin Krue-on’s installation ‘Cloud Nine’ in the Contemporary Asian Art exhibition at the Singapore Art Gallery featured stray dogs with beautiful wings that reminded me of S. D. Schindler’s magical illustrations for Ursula Le Guin’s Catwings; more substantially, we caught the tail end of a city-wide Children’s Season in museums – a whole building of the SAG was given over to interactive works that invited children’s participation, real works that made me want to join in, and a video art room that showed excellent children’s cartoons.
a system of pricing in which things aren’t always what they seem: if for instance you bought Dr Dre earphones for your iPad for $430 ( very cheap, it turns out, probably because they’re fake) you might find yourself paying more than $500 because of the 7 per cent GST, and if you challenged the maths of that, you might discover there was a government levy on credit card transactions. Not all of this is swift talking by clever salespeople – I saw a price tag on a Tiger beer tower (don’t ask) that read ‘$68 + +’.
It’s a terrific city. We walked a lot above ground and a lot below ground. We ate Indian, Japanese, Chinese, and ice cream. We discovered deep fried cereal prawns, which we ate but didn’t understand. Today as we swam upstream in Bugis Street against a current consisting almost entirely of cheerful young people, I thought to myself, ‘This is no country for old men.’ in a couple of hours we’ll be flying to Byzantium, those dolphin-torn, those gong-tormented seas.
Months ago, I mooched four books by Ursula K Le Guin from BookMooch , and have been reading them semi-assiduousy since. I’ve waited until I’d read them all to do a combined post.
A sufficient interval having passed since reading The Tombs of Atuan, I moved on to the third of the Earthsea books and was not disappointed. It reminded me at some moments of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, probably because both books feature a ride in a boat that goes on and on and on. There’s no character as irritating as Reepicheep, however, and though the final destination was fairly clearly signalled, I didn’t have the oppressive sense in this book that all was predetermined, as I did in the C S Lewis book. (If you haven’t read VDT, don’t let these remarks put you off. I believe many people found it utterly delightful, and Reepicheep among its finest elements.)
There are really only two characters in this book: Sparrowhawk, now the Archmage of Earthsea, and young Prince Arren who comes to ask Sparrowhawk’s advice on a problem in his home island, and stays to be his companion in seeking out the cause of the problem – much bigger than Arren knew – and in the end overcoming it. The relationship between the two men, old and young, is a thing of great joy. Arren is described early on as falling in love with the old, wise man, and I can’t help lamenting that the moral panic about paedophilia that has corrupted our culture in the last 30 years has made such a description feel risky. I didn’t care very much about the villain: though the final confrontation with him wasn’t written perfunctorily, I read it without any particular commitment. On the other hand, a splendid non-human character makes its first appearance less than ten pages from the end, completely convincing, completely memorable. How does she do that?
Incidentally, the author biog in this book answers the question about the author’s middle initial: the K stands for Kroeber, the name of her anthropologist father and writer mother.
Then I moved on to a couple of adult books, to both of which I brought preconceptions.
I knew The Left Hand of Darkness had a lot of gender-bending, and I had a subliminal assumption that it was a bit of a women’s liberation tract. It’s not that I expected to be out of sympathy with its sentiments. I just didn’t relish the idea of 300 pages of right-on propaganda from forty years ago.
I needn’t have worried. UKLG is a story teller with a great gift for aphorism (my mooched copy has quite a bit of pencilled underlining of sentences like ‘A profound love between two people involves, after all, the power and chance of doing profound hurt’) and a miraculous capacity for world-building. On the planet Winter, the humans become sexual for only a couple of days each month unless they are pregnant, and there’s no telling whether a given individual will be male or female in any given month. This holds a distorting mirror up to our assumptions about the primacy of gender for human identity, but there’s no preaching, and the reader is not told what to think about it all. The visitor from a planet where sexes are differentiated much as ours are (perhaps he’s actually from Earth) develops a close bond with a member of the other species, and is alone with him (every individual is referred to as him, even when pregnant) for several months – we know that he will be in ‘kemmer’, kind of like oestrus, during their time together, and the sexual tension will be huge. Not only that, but it’s clear that the shape of the book requires that their relationship reach a new level of intimacy. In the hands of a lesser writer this could have led to erotico-bathetic disaster. Not so here. The author plays completely fair; the tension is resolved; intimacy is achieved; nothing is icky.
If I had subliminally prejudged The Left Hand of Darkness to be 60s feminist polemic, The Dispossessed was filed in my brain under Anarchist Agenda. I may have actually read an excerpt when it first came out, in which there was a lot of exposition about the workings of anarchism on the planet Anarres. As expected, the book was a joyous surprise. The society founded by the followers of the sage Odo is, if anything, more profoundly challenging to our assumptions about human possibilities than the ‘bisexual’ characters of The Left Hand. These are people who learn from babyhood that you can’t own anything, that ‘excess is excrement’. They speak not of ‘my mother’ but of ‘the mother’; they have trouble grasping the concept of class or understanding the function of a state; they refer to the society on their twin planet/moon Urras, from which they are in voluntary exile, as archist and propertarian; and they find institutionalised sexism puzzling:
He knew from Odo’s writings that two hundred years ago the main Urrasti sexual institutions had been ‘marriage’, a partnership authorised and enforced by legal and economic sanctions, and ‘prostitution’, which seemed merely to be a wider term, copulation in the economic mode.
So yes, I guess you could read the book as utopian anarchist propaganda, but it’s much more impressive and engaging than that. The word ‘magisterial’ comes to mind. In Odo, who died two centuries before the action of the book, Le Guin has created a great visionary anarchist. We are given snippets of her life and works; the characters are steeped in them, quote chapter and verse, argue their meaning in a changed context – all in ways that make her a completely believable presence in the society based on her thinking
But the Odonians haven’t got everything right. Shevek, a brilliant temporal physicist (that is, one who deals in the physics of time – Shevek’s general theory of Simultaneity will transform space travel possibilities) can’t get his theoretical work published because the Odonian opposition to ‘egoising’ has congealed into a bureaucratic stymying of creativity, and sometimes wells up into mob hatred of anyone who challenges received ideas. Facing down accusations of treachery – and dodging hurled bricks – he goes to Urras to further his work. Chapters telling of his life up to the point of departure alternate with those narrating his culture shock, seduction and eventual disillusion among the propertarians. The book is still powerful and inspiring after all these years, bodying forth the truism that how things are is not how they have to be forever. I suspect that fans of Ayn Rand would see it as ridiculous fantasy from beginning to end, but then …
What do you do after you’ve written something as profound as The Dispossessed? I hope Ursula Le Guin managed to rest on her laurels for at least a little moment. it may have been a mistake for me to move straight on to another book of hers, away from the ‘Hainish’ world of the last two, because The Beginning Place seemed very pale by comparison. It is fantasy love story rather than political science fiction, and if it wasn’t written in impeccable, musical prose, it would be too long by half for its simple, and predictable, story. But predictable is sometimes just another word for archetypal, and there’s plenty to surprise and delight. Having just intimated a couple of paragraphs back that I was relieved at the absence of a sex scene in The Left Hand of Darkness, I should say that the sex scene in this is handled with a degree of frankness that all the same manages to avoid disrupting the story. We do have this sentence, however, as a warning that sex is dangerous to write about (the characters are fully clothed at this very serious point in the narrative): ‘His desire for her stood up and throbbed against her belly, but his arms held her in a greater longing even than that, one for which life cannot give consummation.’
Some time in the middle of my Le Guin Readathon, a friend said she’d read everything by UKLG in her Anarchist youth. I rushed from the room and brought back the first two Catwings books – this book and Catwings Return – which she admitted she hadn’t heard of. When she brought them back a couple of days later she said she’d enjoyed them, but two were enough: no need for Wonderful Alexander and the Catwings and Jane on her Own (neither of which I’ve read, so it seems I agree with her). Before putting them back on the shelf where we keep books for visiting children, I re-read just this one, and found it just as magical as the first time. I believe the idea for this book came to Ms Le Guin while she was standing in a queue at a supermarket, and she drew a sketch of a cat with wings on the back of her shopping list. S D Schindler’s convincingly realistic illustrations are a large part of the book’s charm. This was probably my fifteenth reading, and the last line still brought tears to my eyes.
(Published 7 January 2009, retrieved 30 July 2021.)
When I was an impressionable undergraduate at Sydney University in the 1960s, the student newspaper Honi Soit published an article by an academic philosopher – it may have been George Molnar — explaining that science fiction was worth reading because in it writers imagined alternative ways of organising society. I wasn’t by any means a hard core science fiction fan, but I had read some. Far from being grateful for a magisterial endorsement of my occasional pleasures, I remember feeling a sneaking contempt for the philosopher who (I thought) had missed the point completely: to argue for the usefulness of science fiction seemed to deny the sheer enjoyment of imagined worlds. I mention the article now because, if I remember correctly, it focused on The Left Hand of Darkness and other Ursula Le Guin books, and may have been responsible for my not having read anything by her until the 1990s when the magical Catwings series came my way professionally and I discovered that she was a lot of fun. (I had read one of the later books in the Earthsea cycle before that, but for a value of ‘read’ that amounts to ascertaining that it expected the reader to know what had happened previously, and further ascertaining that references to menstruation made it unsuitable for most 10 or 11 year olds.) So here I am at last, thanks to my discovery of BookMooch, engaging with her most famous children’s books.
I don’t have much to say about them, beyond that I found the story completely engrossing, and her manner of telling it magisterial. It’s fascinating to see elements of so many more recent books here. This story is a little like Hamlet – full of quotes. I have resolved never to see the recent TV version, which notoriously made all the characters white (the producers announced proudly that they were colo[u]r blind). It’s not that there’s any kind of profound statement about racism in the book, but the play with skin colour is nonetheless a lovely feature of the characterisation and world building. And one other thing: where did that middle-initial K come from between the first book and the second?
I was going to make this an entry about the whole trilogy, but Penny’s old copy of the third volume of the trilogy managed to go wandering after sitting prominently on the shelf in the spare room for decades, so this is just a note about the first two books, and a promise that I will read and write something about the third. The long wait for the final book of a trilogy, painful though it may be, is after all intrinsic to the experience of reading it. I think of the interminable gaps between The Subtle Knife and The Golden Compass, The Golem’s Eye and Ptolemy’s Gate, Inkheart and Inkdeath (now published but I haven’t seen it), Deep Water and Full Circle (for which the wait has barely begun – Pamela Freeman’s website informs us that the first draft is now with the editor). So I’ll wait until the mage-winds of BookMooch bring me to The Farthest Shore.
This is wonderful. Leah Purcell, wrote it, directed it and is on screen for almost every minute of it. It's moved a long way from Henry Lawson's short story that inspired it, but includes a sweet homage to his mother Louisa Lawson.
Not a great film, but a pleasant enough time in the picture theatre. The story itself, of a bizarre deceptive strategy that was crucial to the Allies' success in the war against Nazism, is fascinating.
I saw the film based o the stage show based on this book some years ago. Blog post here, I'm now reading the book as counterpoint / reinforcement to Shuggie Bain. They have a lot in common besides being set in Glasgow, but I expect the differences to be instructive.
The first season ended in the harsh repression at the end of the Dublin Easter Uprising. This one takes up the story half a decade later with the continuing resistance and the outlawed republican government i hiding. Netflix original series set in Ireland gives us significant historical stories. In Australia they give us Byron Baes.