11/12. ‘The Tombs of Atuan’ and ‘The Farthest Shore’ by Ursula K. Le Guin

Fantasy was one of the genres that inspired my love of reading. In honor of one of the greats, Ursula K. Le Guin, I decided to reread her Earthsea stories and relive my childhood. This week I finished the second and third volumes of the original trilogy. You can read my review of A Wizard of Earthsea here.


It had been so long since I read these books that it really did feel like the first time. This trilogy was so different than others because each one featured a different protagonist. The original hero Ged, also known as Sparrowhawk, appears in both books but more in the form of a mentor to the main characters. Despite a different change of pace for each one, I still found myself enjoying both books immensely.

While the first book serves as a classic quest narrative where the young wizard Ged is hunting down a dark force he unleashed, The Tombs of Atuan is more self-contained taking place within one particular region of Earthsea. Although the young wizard Ged is essentially on another quest, he does not actually appear until about halfway through the book. Instead, the novel is centered on Tenar, a young priestess who is going through her own internal journey.

As a child, Tenar was taken from her family by those that serve the Nameless Ones, believing her to be the next reincarnation of their high priestess. In a ceremony, her name is taken from her and going forward she is known as “Arha” meaning “the eaten one.” Her life becomes a lonely one as she is trained in the duties of a priestess, and often seems like she is more a prisoner than a ruler. Tenar learns of the dark labyrinth beneath the temple, and she makes it her own domain. Her life of service is disrupted by the appearance of Ged who is seeking a lost magical treasure. Although she initially wants him destroyed, Tenar also begins to question her entire worldview as Ged teaches her that the world is a much larger place than she ever imagined.

I really enjoyed The Tombs of Atuan a lot, and in many ways more so than the first book. The absence of Ged from the first half of the book allows us to get to know Tenar and sympathize with her character. The story moves through about a decade of her life from when she is taken from her family until she is a teenager. As Le Guin explores Tenar’s loneliness and isolation, we get a very feminist tale. The high priestess has no choice in whether or not she will serve the Nameless Ones. Although she theoretically is supposed to have all of this power, she really is just a slave to their beliefs. Her entire identity is stripped from her and even her name is taken away. Her plight made me think about women who become prisoners of a cult. For me, the story was much darker than A Wizard of Earthsea. 

I also liked the way Ged was portrayed in this book as the voice of a mentor. Although he is still young, he has obviously learned a lot from his past adventures. Through him, Tenar learns that she has been brainwashed and has the ability to choose her own path. I think this is a great book for female readers, and it is not necessary to have read the first volume to dive into this one.

“Living, being in the world, was a much greater and stranger thing than she had ever dreamed.”

When he was first introduced in A Wizard of Earthsea, Ged is a young and reckless magician that has to face the darker half of his nature. In The Farthest Shore, Ged is now much older and serving as Archmage on the island of Roke. When a young prince named Arren arrives with news that magic seems to be fading from the world and the inhabitants of Earthsea are slowly losing their knowledge. Ged decides to set sail with Arren on his boat Lookfar to discover the source of this malaise. While The Farthest Shore is not without problems, it does work beautifully as a fitting end to the original Earthsea trilogy while serving as the perfect reminder of the original book. As this is the final outing for the wizard Ged, Le Guin change pace back to a more physical world-spanning quest. Ged and his young apprentice have an adventure than takes them to the very edges of Earthsea while also carrying them to the line that crosses life and death.

Ged’s new role as a wise old mentor works well with the young and idealistic Arren. There are several moments that call back to Ged’s younger days when he was young and reckless. My main problem though was I found that I didn’t sympathize with Arren nearly as much as I did with Tenar. I think had there been some deeper backstory with the character as there was in the previous book, that problem may have been rectified.

I also think this one could have been fleshed out a little more and worked as a longer novel. Ged and Arren do a lot of traveling in this book as they attempt to uncover the cause of what is destroying magic. Since the novel is less than 200 pages, Le Guin doesn’t allow for time to stay in one place too long. I did enjoy their adventures, and the two men are taken to some extremely dark places but more time with it would have been helpful. It seems like they were on the boat a lot reflecting on the nature of life and death. There are some truly fantastic adventures along the way, including the return of dragons! I found that I loved the adventures way more than all the reflecting taking place back on the boat, but it seemed like way too much time was spent there.

Another qualm I have with this one is the main enemy, a dark wizard named Cob, isn’t introduced until late in the book. Cob has a deep past with Ged, but unfortunately those events happened between Atuan and Shore so we really don’t get to know this character for very long. It would have been fantastic if he could have been someone we had actually met in A Wizard of Earthsea. Instead, it didn’t feel as emotional as it could have been. I love how Le Guin brought the tale of Ged full circle by having him face the type of wizard that he almost became himself had he not chosen the path of light. One of the main themes of this novel is about balance, such as good and evil, and life and death. I think Cob’s desire to cheat death makes him a compelling villain, but again this could have been even stronger with further backstory.

This book is filled with Le Guin’s beliefs and works as a great exploration of life and death. Nobody does existentialism in fiction better than Le Guin as the internal struggles of the characters are just as compelling as the fights. Earthsea remains one the best fantasy realms ever created. I plan on reading the next volume Tehanu in the near future. In the meantime, it was a wonderful experience getting to read these original tales of Earthsea all over again. There books are definitely worth reading as they have been immensely influential to modern fantasy. Although Le Guin is no longer with us in this realm, she has achieved her immortality with this series.

“No darkness lasts forever. And even there, there are stars.”

Have you read these books? I’d love to know your thoughts!


10. ‘Writing Down the Bones’ by Natalie Goldberg

I have been wanting to improve my writing abilities, so I thought it would be a good time to reread one of the most celebrated tools of the craft. I used to own a pocket-sized edition of this book and gained a lot of valuable information from it. Sadly, it got misplaced. For Christmas, my wife bought me this lovely 30th anniversary edition which contains an interview with the author and other additional information. It typically takes me a long time to finish a work of nonfiction, but I managed to complete this one in just two short days.


Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within is not your typical “how-to” book. She doesn’t explore topics like creating characters, plotting, or how to get your novel published. Instead, she has created a work that teaches the importance of getting to know ourselves better through the art of writing. Goldberg has spent several years practicing as a Zen Buddhist, and throughout her book often equates writing as a spiritual practice. This is a book about expressing ourselves better so that we understand our lives better.

I will be the first to admit that my biggest obstacle when it comes to writing is trying to stifle my inner critic. All writers have one. It is the voice that makes you feel guilty for writing when there are “more important” things to do. Often, the inner critic will tell you to stop writing because what you are putting down on paper is complete garbage. My personal critic’s best trick is telling me that I have nothing valuable to write, so why waste the time. Throughout her book, Goldberg stresses the importance of writing for writing’s sake. Forget those worries that what you are putting down on paper is complete shit. Stop worrying about issues like grammatical errors, using the wrong word, or wanting to rewrite that sentence. Sit down and write! Get your hand moving across the page and get those words out! There will be plenty of time to go back later and handle revisions. Goldberg continually promotes the importance of sitting down and engaging with the act of writing.

“It is important to separate the creator and the editor or internal censor when you practice writing, so that the creator has free space to breathe, explore, and express.”

I love how Goldberg compares writing to physical exercise. When you first get started, finding the motivation can be difficult. Once you get going, you begin to make writing a part of your daily life. Goldberg promotes longhand writing, stating that “handwriting is more connected to the movement of the heart.” In her own practice, Goldberg uses several cheap notebooks and writes as much as she can until she has filled that notebook and can start another one. As she goes back over what she has written, she finds pieces that are valuable and worth further exploration. Through this spiritual act of writing, we open our hearts and minds and begin to fully connect with our inner beings.

The layout of this book is fantastic, and Goldberg writes with such clarity. Through 66 short pieces, she covers what it means to be a writers, jumping off points, the power of detail, dealing with both inner and outer criticism, as well as neat little ideas for making your writing stand out better. Goldberg repeatedly returns to the idea of timed writing which does not allow for stopping, crossing out, or editing. The main idea is to go as deep within yourself as possible because those first thoughts have so much power and energy. Goldberg encourages us to not hold back and to let those obsessions fly freely across the page. Writing is a physical act that allows us to touch upon some truly powerful inner thoughts.

“Write what disturbs you, what you fear, what you have not been willing to speak about. Be willing to be split open.”

I think one of the reasons this particular book is so special to me is that it reminds me of how similar therapy and writing are as interrelated disciplines. As a therapist, my work is to help others break down inner walls and uncover deep-seated emotions. With my older clients, I often use writing as a tool to help them find those inner truths. Often, we are afraid to approach those really difficult topics for the power they hold. Goldberg encourages us to not hold back from those hurts. Through writing from our pain, it eventually “engenders compassion for our small and groping lives.”

As you can see, I really love everything that Natalie Goldberg has to say about the practice of writing. This book is such a great resource for anyone. Whether you are a professional writer or not, this book will inspire you to find the artist deep within yourself. Writing Down the Bones is not just about writing. It is about finding your soul.

Image result for writing down the bones quotes

Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts!

9. ‘Stories of Your Life and Others’ by Ted Chiang

Whenever I read a collection of short stories, I typically have one or two favorites. Ted Chiang’s Stories of Your Life and Others was so brilliant, that I loved nearly every single story in this collection. All of them were intelligently written, and I’m still wrapping my head around the deep philosophical questions they asked.


Many of you may be familiar with “Story of Your Life,” the short that is the basis for the sci-fi film Arrival. I’m definitely putting it on my list of movies to watch. Beautifully written and highly thought-provoking, it explores the argument of free will vs. determinism.  It is narrated by Louise, a linguistics expert, who is asked by the military to help as translator between humans and aliens who have landed on Earth. These beings, referred to as heptapods because of their seven limbs, have a different language for both written and spoken words. The story alternates between Louise and her future husband working on understanding the aliens’ languages with Louise speaking to her future daughter. The reader is compelled to continue along to figure out how Louise appears to have knowledge of her personal future. The two separate stories intersect brilliantly, and we are left with the question, “If you had knowledge of what’s to come, would you attempt to change it?”

Many of these stories contain these kinds of “what if” questions, which I personally love. What if angels were real? What if we could no longer see beauty? Ted Chiang’s fiction is quite heavy on the science, but equally so on topics of religion and philosophy. I was hooked from the very beginning with the first story “Tower of Babylon” a version of the classic Babel tale where human beings have built a tower to take them to the vault of heaven. What do they discover when they arrive? Well, I won’t spoil it, but the ending is quite fantastic and has you remembering the importance of appreciating the ground at your feet.

If you really want to read a story that will get you fired up, try “Hell is the Absence of God.” In this story, angels will often manifest on Earth, bringing natural disasters with them. Some of the people who witness these visitations are granted extraordinary gifts, while others get horribly injured or even killed. The main character is a man named Neil who has a physical disability. Neil doesn’t love God and fully expects to go to Hell when he dies. He is fine with this until the day he loses his wife Sarah during a visitation. Neil is irrevocably devastated by the loss and knows the only way to be reunited with her is to find a way to love God.

This story made me so angry when I was reading it, especially when it got to the end. Again, no spoilers here. Despite being set in a surreal universe, Chiang paints it well through very believable human characters. Is simple belief enough? Read it as it will impact you. I also liked how this story explored different reactions to having a disability. As someone who has dealt with this topic, it was highly emotional on that end as well.

I would be performing an injustice to Mr. Chiang if I did not praise two other stories. “Liking What You See: A Documentary” explores a future where science has made it possible to induce calliagnosia, a condition which makes it possible remove a person’s concept of beauty in others. The story centers on a college campus that wants to require the process for students during their entire tenure. Is it better to live in a world where we are unable to recognize physical beauty? Both sides of the debate have some excellent points. Another favorite of mine was “Division by Zero” about a mathematician who makes a discovery that results in a suicide attempt. The story is truly about her relationship with her husband and the impact her attempt has on them as a couple. Once again, another perfect blending of he intellectual with the poignant.

I love when authors include notes on where their ideas developed. Chiang briefly discusses each story, and I loved getting this additional insight into his thought processes. If you are a science fiction lover like myself, then you need to read Stories of Your Life and Others. When it comes to grand ideas with deep moral complexity, Ted Chiang is one of the best out there.

“The familiar was far away, while the bizarre was close at hand.” – ”Story of Your Life”

Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts!


8. ‘A Wizard of Earthsea’ by Ursula K. Le Guin

I decided it was time to revisit my childhood. Recently, the world lost one of its greatest writers in the incomparable Ursula K. Le Guin. This book transports me back to my younger days of playing Dungeons and Dragons, reading fantasy and science fiction, and just being an insecure nerd all around. Back then, I thought the types of fiction that I loved could only be written by men. I would quickly discover just how wrong I was. Before Earthsea, I had previously become aware of Le Guin in high school with her fantastic short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.”A friend had loaned me copies of the Earthsea stories, and I remember being completely awestruck. Those books transported me to a world of wizards and dragons that helped me escape my mundane existence. Would the first volume of this trilogy still hold the same magic after all these years?


This is the story of Ged who starts out as a budding sorcerer learning from his aunt. Recognizing his abilities, he is trained under the tutelage of a legendary wizard before entering into a famous school of magic. My description probably sounds similar to another young wizard of particular fame, but please let me stress that this book does not resemble that story in the slightest. Despite showing significant prowess at the magical arts and even saving a village from destruction, Ged’s impatience and arrogance seek to be his undoing. While under the apprenticeship of Ogion, Ged quickly tires of his rather slow approach. His ambition takes him to the wizard academy on Roke where he hopes to finally show off his skills. However, things only get worse from there. During a challenge from another student, Ged attempts to release a spirit from the underworld. Instead, Ged unleashes a dark shadow creature who will now hunt him down for the rest of his life until he is destroyed.

A Wizard of Earthsea is your typical coming-of-age story. Throughout the novel, Ged starts to develop from an arrogant child into the mature man who will one day become the source of legends. Despite being a short book, Le Guin manages to give the novel a very epic feel with lots of traveling and introducing several characters who enter and leave the tale. This book definitely falls into the category of high fantasy, where it can often seem as though large spans of time go by where nothing significant happens. It definitely has a feel of Tolkien about it as Le Guin’s writing is very sophisticated yet easy to follow. The creation of this world is very detailed with lots of maps spread throughout the book.

This story could be considered just as much a philosophy text as a fantasy story. Le Guin studied the Taoist religion during her lifetime, and many of these concepts appear during the lessons Ged must learn. This is not to say that the book is without peril as there are some significant action scenes. The battle with the dragons is one of my favorites. Eventually, Ged learns to not run away from his problems and instead face them directly. I won’t spoil the ending here, but let’s just say you should be able to figure out the shadow’s secret before Ged does.

It was a pleasure to travel to Earthsea again. Like its protagonist, I too have changed a lot over the years. Hopefully in good ways. I plan to return to Earthsea again in the near future. Until then, it was nice to revisit this book that had so much bearing on my love of dreaming.

“But need alone is not enough to set power free: there must be knowledge.”


Have you read this book or are you planning to? I’d love to know your thoughts!


7. ‘Every Day’ by David Levithan

Whenever a writer takes on the trials of penning a romance, you can be sure that there will be obstacles in the path to love. Maybe the families don’t get along or perhaps one of the pair is dying of some incurable disease. However, nothing comes close to the challenges between the two title characters in David Levithan’s novel Every Day. The premise on the cover sounded too intriguing to pass up, plus the book has received a lot of favorable reviews over the past few years. After reading the first page in the bookstore, I knew I had to get it. I finished Every Day fairly quickly, and I’m pleased to say that I really liked it for the most part. For a work of young adult fiction, Levithan manages to make the book intriguing enough to keep going. He also raises some good questions in regards to gender and the value we place on outside appearances.


Here’s the beginning that got me hooked:

I wake up.

Immediately I have to figure out who I am. It’s not just the body-opening my eyes and  discovering whether the skin on my arm is light or dark, whether my hair is long or short, whether I’m fat or thin, boy or girl, scarred or smooth. The body is the easiest thing to adjust to, if you’re used to waking up in a new one each morning. It’s the life, the context of the body, that can be hard to grasp. 

Every day I am someone else. I am myself-I know I am myself-but I am also someone else. 

It has always been like this. 

This is the story of a being who simply goes by the name “A.” Every day, A wakes up in a new body, and it has been this way for his entire life. While in the body of a boy named Justin, A begins to develop feelings for Justin’s girlfriend Rhiannon. Although A has always done his best not to interfere with the lives of his many hosts, meeting Rhiannon has sparked a longing for something long-term. Thus begins, a rather unconventional romance.

Levithan does a great job of establishing the rules to A’s very unconventional life. Since A has been alive for sixteen years, all the hosts have to be approximately that age. Also, A can only travel short distances between bodies, so the only way to end up in a different part of the world would be for the host to have traveled that particular day. A is able to access memories in order to get around that day and also to implant a general set of memories to the hosts to account for the missing day. He prefers to be asleep at midnight because otherwise, there is the painful feeling of being ripped from the body. So every morning A wakes up as someone else only to be that someone for the day. Although I’m referring to A with the masculine pronoun, the truth is that A does not identify himself as either gender as he can inhabit the bodies of a male or female host.

“In my experience, desire is desire, love is love. I have never fallen in love with a gender. I have fallen for individuals. I know this is hard for people to do, but I don’t understand why it’s so hard, when it’s so obvious.”

What I liked best about this story was the exploration into the ideas of gender and outside appearances. Rhiannon struggles due to the fact that every time she sees A it’s a different body. I mean wouldn’t you? There’s one day where A is the body of a very obese person, and Rhiannon struggles with hiding her disgust. Also, Rhiannon is more uncomfortable when A is in the body of a girl. A doesn’t see love that way. Over the years, A has had feelings for both boys and girls and sees the person rather than the gender. I loved this idea of just seeing the inner person free of labels. If you woke up one morning to find the person you loved had changed bodies, could you still feel the same way?

I also loved how living so many lives has affected A’s perception of life, particularly in appreciating the little details.

“It’s so hard when you’re in one body to get a sense of what life is really like. You’re so grounded in who you are. But when who you are changes every day-you get to touch the universal more. Even the most mundane details. You see how cherries taste different to different people. Blue looks different. You see all the strange rituals boys have to show affection without admitting it. You learn that if a parent reads to you at the end of the day, it’s a good sign that it’s a good parent, because you’ve seen so many other parents who don’t make the time. You learn how much a day is truly worth, because they’re all so different. If you ask most people what the difference was between Monday and Tuesday, they might tell you what they had for dinner each night. Not me. By seeing the world from so many angles, I get more of a sense of its dimensionality.”

I love that quote! How often do the days just bleed together? Do we always remember to stop and appreciate all the little joys of life? It just really felt good to see that point-of-view. However, can love really work when the person you love can never be the same person on the outside? Rhiannon can never tell anyone about A, or introduce him to her friends, or even wake up next to him the next morning. I really liked the character of Rhiannon. She’s a kind-hearted girl with a boyfriend who ignores her. Meeting A has opening her eyes to the possibilities of so much more. Can there be a happy ending for these two? Well, I’ll never tell. I will say the ending is very emotional, and I’m excited to see how this translates in the upcoming film version.

Rhiannon impacts A in several ways. At the beginning of the book, he makes it a policy to never interfere with his hosts. However, A realizes that sometimes action is necessary. One day, he inhabits the body of a girl suffering from depression and planning to kill herself. A manages to convince the girl’s father to get her help. Another interesting chapter involves A having to spend the day inside a body of someone addicted to drugs. I really liked how the character started to realize that some good can come out of this torturous life. Levithan also does a great job of allowing us to share in A’s suffering. He doesn’t get to have family or loved ones. As he describes it, he is visible yet invisible because nobody knows that he exists inside.

There’s a side story in Every Day where A learns there may be others. Unfortunately, this is just a small part of the book, but I think it would be interesting to see this explored more in a follow-up if that ever happens. For a young adult novel, Every Day had a lot of depth. It’s simple to read, but has some important messages there at its heart.

“I want love to conquer all. But love can’t conquer anything. It can’t do anything on it’s own. It relies on us to do the conquering on its behalf.”

Have you read this book or are you planning to? I’d love to know your thoughts!