Friday, September 27, 2013

Seeing Susan Cooper

So, thanks to someone in our book group sending out the word (thanks, Matt), Janice and I found out about Susan Cooper's being scheduled to give a speech tonight down in Puyallup as part of their first annual Book Fair (which they're combining with the celebration of their library's centennial).  We thought we'd allowed plenty of time, but inexplicable slowdowns on Hwy167 (the valley highway) meant we arrived just as folks were getting seated.

There were actual several parts to tonight's event: three songs performed by the Revels, a group/ musical movement I'd not heard of before today but wh. Cooper has been involved with for decades,* a brief talk by a fellow who I think is director of the library, a film tribute to the English teacher whom they were naming the lecture series after (Jim Taylor). The surprise appearance of Ursula K. LeGuin, tomorrow's featured speaker, to give the introduction to Cooper's talk tonight was an added bonus, LeGuin being her usual articulate, witty self (with the occasional sting, as is her wont), and warm to boot (which is not always the case).  And then of course there was the lecture itself, partly autobiographical and partly focused in on the importance of libraries; she also spoke at the end about her latest novel, GHOST HAWK, about the local Native Americans who once lived where she now lives, in a house that sounds right out of THE WOMAN IN BLACK (Marshfield House, surrounded by sea-marshes and by salt water when the tide is high). Having grown up in London nightly bombings during World War II, she made clear that there's nothing like the knowledge that people are trying to kill you, without your personally having done anything to them or even having met them, to start you thinking about the evil humans do to each other. It was a good talk; glad we made it.

Tomorrow it's LeGuin's turn, so we're planning on heading back down for that (and to see if Cooper returns the favor and introduces LeGuin in turn); thanks to Gyda (also of book group) for letting us know LeGuin was coming. They're also having a mini comicon, so there shd be plenty to do.

If I'd had a chance to ask her a question, it wd have been about whether she ever went to any of Tolkien's lectures -- having worked out from her age and learning that she went to Somerville College that she must have just missed Lewis but wd have been there when Tolkien was still there. Turns out she addresses this in an interview on her website ( I was wrong, in that she did go to Lewis's lectures as well as some of Tolkien's. The only detail she gives about him being that he was "rather mumbly" but she does mention how they all eagerly awaited the publication of THE RETURN OF THE KING, which pretty much dates it. She also talks about the Tolkien/Lewis syllabus' focus on preVictorian literature, with the result that their exposure to Malory and Spenser encouraged an interest in dragons.

I also learned from her website that she's published a book of essays and lectures. DREAMS AND WISHES [1996], which I'll have to track down, given that I enjoyed her talk tonight enough to want more.

I do have to add that I had one real shock during the short film they ran honoring Jim Taylor, the Puyallup high school English teacher they've named the new lecture series after. Included in the happy memories of how inspiring a teacher he was came one woman's account of how he burned her twelve-page essay (on WAR AND PEACE I think it was) before the whole class because she'd ended a sentence with a preposition. I'm sorry, all my years of teaching (two at Fayetteville, seven more at Marquette, not to mention Continuing Education night classes) rose up in revulsion at any teacher who'd do that to a student. And over such a crackpot thing such as ending sentences with prepositions. Gah!

But as for the lecture itself, and the whole book fair: they're off to a great start, and I hope it becomes the ongoing tradition they plan for it to be. In all the years I've lived in the region (is it really sixteen years since we left Wisconsin?), this is just the second time I've been in Puyallup. The first time was to visit their local cheese shop, which disappointingly turned out not to carry Cheshire. This second visit was far more satisfactory. We'll see how the third once tomorrow goes.

Here's the link for the Book Fair et al:

--John R.
current reading: THE MAGICIANS AND MRS. QUENT by "Galen Beckett"

*(their singing is excellent, but they have an annoying habit of trying to get the audience involved, then dropping that audience en masse once they're done with them)


David Bratman said...

Wish I was there.

George Orwell made a tangential point to one of Cooper's in an essay with the greatest opening sentence in the history of essays: "As I write, highly civilised human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me."

But his overall thrust was different: about his potential murderer, Orwell says, "He will never sleep any the worse for it. He is serving his country, which has the power to absolve him from evil."

Matt Fisher said...

The current version of Revels started in Cambridge, MA, in 1971 as a Christmas program that drew on English Christmas and winter solstice traditions. The idea has now spread to 10 cities, and a number of CD's have been issued by some of the groups.

As I understand it, one of the characteristics of a Revels production is involving the audience. But a typical Revels production runs for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, not just a few songs. So I guess I'm not surprised that their approach to audience involvement didn't work as well in a shorter time frame where they weren't the focus.

John D. Rateliff said...

You would have enjoyed it, David. Hope you have a chance to attend a similar reading/lecture soon.

Thanks for the Orwell quote, which does indeed strike home.

Matt, thanks for the background. I realized, hearing more of their stuff on the Saturday, that their kind of music might best be described as secular caroling -- the same mix of voices, and same kind of arrangements, et al. Though have to say I don't know why their drinking song had to contain insults to non-drinkers. What ever happened to live and let live?
In any case, given Cooper's long relationship with the Revels, it was a good match to have them here for her appearance.
--John R.

Paul W said...

One of the truly great fantasy authors, I've always considered the Dark is Rising seires to be in the top five of all fantasy series, but it is horribly under-appreciated by the genre's fans.

Magister said...

Did you know that Susan Cooper (along with Tanith Lee) got this year's World Fantasy Life Achievement award? I hope to see her in Brighton in two weeks.