Okay, this is a slightly early book post, considering that I haven't yet quite finished the book yet. I have three stories left to go. But I am planning to read those stories on the train home tonight, and then to drop off the book at the library immediately afterward, and I knew I wanted to talk about certain stories in this post and I wanted to refer to them. So, early post.
First of all, the title story, "Unlocking the Air". A really beautiful story. Le Guin returns to her imaginary Orsinian country in this story. I was wondering at first why she didn't include this story in her book Orsinian Tales, because it would have injected a much-appreciated bit of light into that very dark collection, but I just now checked on amazon and Orsinian Tales was published in 1977. Unlocking the Air came out in 1996, and the story itself was first published in 1990. And then when I thought about it, I realized that this story couldn't have been written in 1977; Orsinian Tales is very much a book about a country trapped behind the Iron Curtain, a Slavic country with its own personality but with that history that's in a very dark time. "Unlocking the Air" was written after the Iron Curtain came down, and that's what it's really about, those people finally achieving some freedom, and how scary but also intoxicating and beautiful that is. Orsinian Tales is so full of sadness and hopelessness, so it made me glad to see that Le Guin came back to Orsinia (I guess? the people are Orsinian, so...) and wrote some relief and freedom and joy for those people.
Other stories. I liked "The Professor's Houses", a nice little story about aging. "Ether, OR" was probably my favorite in the whole collection. Also a bit reminiscent of the kinds of stories in Searoad, I felt, but a little weirder--I liked how the town of Ether is migratory--and I liked how we came back to the different characters and got an idea that they would each find what they were looking for. I think that's probably the story from this collection that will stick with me. "A Child Bride" I had to read through twice before I fully understood it, but it's only like three pages long so that was fine. Almost a poem as much as a story.
The back cover describes these as "mainstream stories", I guess to distinguish them from Earthsea or scifi stories, and looking at the acknowledgments, a lot of these appeared in places like The New Yorker and Harper's. So in that sense they're mainstream, but some very odd things happen in some of these stories, and they're very magical in their way. Some of them really strongly reminded me of Kelly Link stories, even. There's this sort of creepy darkness in some of this work. I mostly think that's a good thing. Some of the stories were just a little too off, enough that I didn't really get them, but some of them were just enough off that I felt creeped out and hauntedy.
Anyway, I recommend this collection, especially if you like Le Guin, or Kelly Link, or, um, good short stories. Because I think Le Guin is honestly not as appreciated as she should be for her short stories. I'm not all about short fiction myself, so I tend to love her novels more, but she's an excellent story writer and storyteller.
::edit:: Okay, two of the best stories were right at the end. "Olders" is about a secretive group of farmers on a secluded island who have a, well, secret about the trees. It's amazing. And the final story, "The Poacher", was just honestly amazing. It's a fairy tale. It's not a fairy tale. It's amazing and haunting and is going to stick with me and OMG READ IT. So much Le Guin love.