Book Review: “Buffalo Gals and other Animal Presences” by Ursula K. Le Guin

December 30, 2009

When I was 10 or 12 years old, my mother read the short story ‘Buffalo Gals’ out loud to my sister and me. It seeped into my subconscious. I remembered little of the plot as my life stretched on, but recalled nuance, shapeshifting, dreamlike visions and a near worship of the Oregon high desert landscape I would, as a teenager, come to see as my spiritual mirror.

But, at 10 or 12, I wasn’t ready yet for Le Guin’s more grown up themes–they rendered me at the time wary; certain concepts seemed creepy or nightmarish.

So I put Le Guin out of my life for 20 years. Until I saw mention of the story somewhere and it sparked a memory that led to wild Googling and pursuing. I found a used copy of this collection at Powell’s Books in Portland, Ore. Even deeply used it was $20, presumably because it is out of print.

About 75% of the book’s content is astounding. Le Guin’s facility with scaffolding out entirely new frames of reference within a page or two is masterly, and the stories drip with emotive invention.

Not everything works sparkles for me. ‘Horse Camp’ distorts adolescent girl obsessions that I never had. ‘The Wife’s Story’ sets one up for a twist that feels obvious in hindsight. ‘Vaster than Empires and More Slow’ suffered from my reading it too near to my reading of Asimov’s ‘Green Patches’ and is now just a jumble in my head.

But! ‘The Direction of the Road’ is wonderful, though I can’t tell anything about it without giving the entire secret away. The short collection of ‘Therolinguistics’ (translating Adele Penguin and Ant) is riotous and endearing.

Splendid stuff here, to say nothing of the eponymous short story that leads the book. Which, by the way, won the Hugo. Deservedly.

Highly recommended.

5.0 stars
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