Friday, November 21, 2014

Witches: Wicked, WIld & Wonderful edited by Paula Guran (2012)

A couple of great short stories, a hefty helping of good short stories, and a couple of clunkers.  Weirdest story has to be awarded to "Catskin" by Kelly Link, which was well written and interestingly bizarre.  Tanith Lee's "Mirage and Magia" was like some sort of erotic entry in the Oz series, but what less could you expect from Tanith Lee?  I can vaguely remember checking out a Tanith Lee book from the library at some early age, and feeling very prudishly wide-eyed.  Tanith Lee books and short stories are always erotic.  The few stink stories don't detract from a strong collection.  Although the cover art, jeesh.  My favorite witches, Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg, would make mincemeat out that sexy Goth witch on the cover (in fact, they'd be more than a match for almost all the witches in the book).  The unexpected and very "un" Madaleine L'Engle story, "Poor Little Saturday," was worth the purchase alone.  It pre-dates A Wrinkle in Time by six years, and is also about witches, although far different from the Wrinkle witches.  Drawing lines between the witch woman in this short story and the later, greater Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which would make an interesting parlor discussion for L'Engle-philes and L'Engle-ologists.

Witches: Wicked, Wild & WonderfulWitches: Wicked, Wild & Wonderful by Paula Guran
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The unexpected and very "un" Madaleine L'Engle story, "Poor Little Saturday," was worth the purchase alone.  It pre-dates A Wrinkle in Timeby six years, and is also about witches, although far different from the Wrinkle witches.  Drawing lines between the witch woman in this short story and the later, greater Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which would make an interesting parlor discussion for L'Engle-philes and L'Engle-ologists.  That story stood out for me, as did Tanith Lee's "Mirage and Magia," which was like some sort of erotic entry in the Oz series.  "Catskin" by Kelly Link was refreshingly bizarre.  My only complain was the Halloweenish cover.  My favorite witches from literature, Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg (see Wyrd Sisters) would make short work of that Goth vampira, if not actually injuring her, then making her cry and give up her poseur ways.


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Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien (1937, 1965)

A colleague saw my 1965 vintage copy of The Hobbit in my bag last weekend, and asked me how often I'd read it.  That really made me think - how many times have I read The Hobbit?  A conservative guess.  I first read The Hobbit in 1977/78 after it appeared on television in November 1977.  So let’s say I read it once a year since then.  That’s about 37 times.  Let’s say, though, that I skipped a couple of years in college or later adulthood.  Conservatively let’s take that down to 30 times.  But I bet in high school, I read it twice a year at least two years, so that puts it around 35 times.  I think that’s a good estimate.  Let's say this is my 36th time to re-read The Hobbit.  

When you've read a book 35 times, you pretty much know every nook and cranny of the book.  So was greatly surprised on page 16 when I read this line:   "It had always been said that long ago one or other of the Tooks had married into a fairy family (the less friendly said a goblin family)."  That wasn't how I remembered that line at all. I remembered the bit about the fairy wife, but the aside about the goblin family was completely new to me.  I soon found out (thank you Internet) that Tolkien revised The Hobbit several times. The line about the goblins was removed, and Tolkien replaced it with this:   "It was often said (in other families) that long ago one of the Took ancestors must have taken a fairy wife." It was mostly to fit in with the Lord of the Rings universe which he had created prior to The Hobbit.  But obviously he made some minor changes to some of the language.  I couldn't find a definitive place online that listed all the revisions, but I identified a few:


1965 edition:  "Your grandfather was killed, you remember, in the mines of Moria by a goblin --"Modern edition:  "Your grandfather Thror was killed, you remember, in the mines of Moria by Azog the Goblin -"
Azog is backstory, named from TLOTR.


1965 edition:  With that he put on Bilbo a small coat of mail, wrought for some elf-prince long ago.  It was of silvered steel and ornamented with pearls, and with it went a belt of pearls and crystals.  Modern edition:  With that he put on Bilbo a small coat of mail, wrought for some young elf-prince long ago. It was of silver-steel which the elves call mithril, and with it went a belt of pearls and crystals. gems, was set upon the hobbit's head.

The mithril coat is almost a character in TLOTR, so it needed to be added into The Hobbit.   As a word, mithril only appears once.  


I'm sure there are others, but these are the ones I noticed.


As most Tolkien lovers (Tolkienphiles?) know, "Riddles in the Dark" was completely revised, sometime before my 1965 edition (which includes the "true" story of Bilbo's finding of the ring).  I won't go into much detail here, other than to note that Gollum may be the only original character in The Hobbit.  I was thinking that you could drop almost every single character in this book in th middle of a E.M. Forster book (or maybe a Nancy Mitford book, or even Agatha Christie) and after some initial adjustment they'd all become very English (or in the orcs case, German).  The Shire reads like a suburb of London, in which the Honeychurches take tea with the Bagginses, and fall inappropriately in love.  Gollum, though, he's definitely the outsider, the outlier of The Hobbit.  Even badass Smaug, could be played by some beloved British actor on BBC (perhaps a Scot) but Gollum, like the cheese, stands alone.  After 36 times, Gollum is no longer a mystery to me, but I imagine if you are a small child and you are reading The Hobbit for the first time, Gollum is both terrifying and sad.  Gandalf, Bilbo, the dwarves, the elves, Beorn - they are almost stock characters in various genres (from folklore to English comedy of manners) but Gollum is unique.  He becomes even more unique in The Lord of the Rings (when Bilbo becomes Frodo, and Frodo loses his Forster qualities and becomes a Catholic saint; Sam, though, remains English at his core, but I digress).  Gollum is Tolkien's one great creation.  

The goblins in The Hobbit are this strange cross of comic and horror.  Goblins are funny creatures that still sing funny songs and actually sit down and laugh.  They become orcs (a word mentioned twice, I believe, in The Hobbit) in TLOTR, horrific figures from nightmares.  Peter Jackson helped that along too.

Bilbo as a character really starts developing after "Riddles in the Dark."  It's gradual, until page 217, when he swells into a truly interesting character; perhaps I should say that at that point, he becomes us, and we can sympathize and empathize with him.  It's on page 217, which I had never noticed before, that Bilbo tells the dwarves of his encounter with Smaug.  "The hobbit was worried and uncomfortable, and they had difficulty getting anything out him."  He's embarrassed and upset, because he knows that he slipped up and revealed too much to Smaug, and he doesn't (yet) want to open up to the dwarves about it.  He takes it out the thrush (the unsung hero - whatever happened to that thrush anyway?), throws a rock at him (luckily the thrush is forgiving), and finally tells them what he said.  They are very forgiving - they, better than anyone, understand how tricky dragons can be.  It's here that Bilbo leaves behind comedy and enters, slightly, the world of tragedy.  The adventure becomes real, and Bilbo becomes real as well.  He's like us.  Thorin and Company, Gandalf, Beorn... they are all just characters in a book.  Lovable (or not), but not particularly relatable.  You and I will never be a wizard or a dwarf king.  But we will say things that later we regret, we will take out our frustrations on others, we will be reluctant to admit we've messed up.  We're all Bilbo at some point or the other.  Bilbo isn't a great or unique character like Gollum, but from that point on he's a character we can understand.  

Gandalf in TLOTR isn't one of my favorite characters  - but Gandalf in The Hobbit is.  He's much more likable and down to earth.  Here's Gandalf at the end, when he finds out Bilbo is alive:  

When Gandalf saw Bilbo, he was delighted. "Baggins!" he exclaimed. "Well I never! Alive after all - 1 am glad! I began to wonder if even your luck would see you through! A terrible business, and it nearly was disastrous. But other news can wait. Come!" he said more gravely. "You are called for;" and leading the hobbit he took him within the tent.

Gandalf wouldn't call anyone Baggins in TLOTR, particularly in Return of the King.  He's too busy being a demigod.   


The Hobbit, or There and Back AgainThe Hobbit, or There and Back Again by J.R.R. Tolkien
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I did some loose calculating, and I've probably read The Hobbit 35 times in my life; this makes number 36.  I pick up something different every time I read it.  Last time, I realized what a bad ass Smaug was.  This time, I realized that Gollum may be the only original character in book.  I was thinking that you could drop almost every single character in this book in th middle of a E.M. Forster book (or maybe a Nancy Mitford book, or even Agatha Christie) and after some initial adjustment they'd all become very English (or in the orcs case, German).  The Shire reads like a suburb of London, in which the Honeychurches take tea with the Bagginses, and fall inappropriately in love.  Gollum, though, he's definitely the outsider, the outlier of The Hobbit.  Even badass Smaug, could be played by some beloved British actor on BBC (perhaps a Scot) but Gollum, like the cheese, stands alone.  After 36 times, Gollum is no longer a mystery to me, but I imagine if you are a small child and you are reading The Hobbit for the first time, Gollum is both terrifying and sad.  Gandalf, Bilbo, the dwarves, the elves, Beorn - they are almost stock characters in various genres (from folklore to English comedy of manners) but Gollum is unique.  He becomes even more unique in The Lord of the Rings (when Bilbo becomes Frodo, and Frodo loses his Forster qualities and becomes a Catholic saint; Sam, though, remains English at his core, but I digress).  Gollum is Tolkien's one great creation.  I could go on, but I won't here.  Check out what I've written about at my blog:  http://shawnmthrasher.blogspot.com/20...



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Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Help Thanks Wow: The Three Essential Prayers by Anne Lamott (2012)

I dogeared so many pages of this library book that I just need to go out and buy my own copy.  There is some beautiful stuff here, and much needed.  I've heard of Anne Lamott (I think if you even have a glimmer of a literary bent, you've heard of Anne Lamott) but never actually read anything by her.  Her writing style if accessibly dense; there is a lot going on here, but her style is simple and approachable.  Here's a few of my favorite passages (the book is basically a continuum of favorite passages though):

I get thirsty people glasses of water, even if that thirsty person is just me.
(I know some people who need to understand this deeply and truly, and get themselves more glasses of water.)
Life unspools in cycles, some lovely, some painful, but in no predictable order.  So you could have lovely, painful and painful again, which I think we all agree is not at all fair... but if you've been around for a while, you know that much of the time, if you are patient and are paying attention, you will see that God will restore what the locusts have taken away.
(The locusts have been at work lately in my life.)
In the face of everything, we slowly come through.  We manage to make new constructs and baskets to hold what remains, and what has newly appeared.  
 (I love the use of the word "baskets" in conjunction with constructs; it's beautiful wordplay, like science and romantic imagery collide).

If we stay where we are, where we're stuck, where we're comfortable and safe, we die there.  We become like mushrooms, living in the dark, with poop up to our chins.   If you want to know what you already know, you're dying... when nothing new can get in, that's death.  When oxygen can't find a way in, you die.  But new is scary, and can be disappointing and confusing - we had this all figured out, and now we don't.
(Love this imagery too)
New is life.
That statement alone is a Help Thanks Wow Amen sort of statement, all of them rolled into one.

Help Thanks Wow: The Three Essential PrayersHelp Thanks Wow: The Three Essential Prayers by Anne Lamott
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I borrowed this copy from the library, and ended up dog earing so many pages that I probably should go out and buy the book.  Accessibly dense; It's like Communion.  There are some beautiful passages here, and there is much going on here, but her style is simple and approachable.  I blogged some of my favorite passages here (http://shawnmthrasher.blogspot.com/20...) but essentially the entire book is a continuum of favorite passages.


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Monday, November 10, 2014

Foundation: The History of England From It's Earliest Beginnings to the Tudors by Peter Ackroyd (2011)

I love Peter Ackroyd’s writing style, and plan on reading EVERYTHING HE’S EVER WRITTEN.  I’m listening to his biography of William Shakespeare on audio and reading Foundation.  Here are some reasons why I think his writing is so colorful and brilliant and wonderful:

Regarding early British history:  “Tacitus reports that, at the time of the Roman colonization, the south-eastern English spoke a language not unlike that of the Baltic tribes.  But there can be no certainties in the matter.  All lies in mist and twilight.”  To make this even sweeter, the chapter is titled “Hymns of Stone.”  Lovely, vivid imagery.

______

“The ordinary routines of life are never chronicled by the historian, but they make up almost the whole of experience.”

_______

Matilda, who fought with King Stephen over the throne of England, was an interesting character.  I'm surprised there aren't more books or films about her.  She was a woman fighting in what was essentially a man's world, which is interesting enough.  She also had two terrific escapes that would seem like fiction if they weren't real:  "On one occasion she retreated from the castle at Devizes in the guise of a corpse; she was wrapped in linen cerecloth, and tied by ropes to a bier.  Subsequently she was besieged in the castle at Oxford on a winter's night; she dressed in white, and was thus camouflaged against the snow as she made her way down the frozen Thames to Wallingford."  It's this last story I love the most, it paints a very romantic picture, almost a "white witch" sort of image.  That "white witch" may also explain why Matilda doesn't get the same air play as later queens - she was very unpopular, and the stink of unpopularity perhaps still haunts her a thousand years later.

_______

"It is perhaps worth recording that in the years of 'the Anarchy', the umbrella was introduced into England.  It has outlived cathedrals and palaces."  

________

We think of the middle ages as stone drab and brown, but in richer households "the colours would by modern standards of taste be considered inharmonious, with strident yellows and purples and greens placed beside each other.  The intended effect was one of brilliancy and vivacity... in a similar spirit men often wore shoes of different colours."  I love it!

_________

William the Conqueror brutally crushed northern rebellions in actions called "the harrowing of the north."  Men and animals were killed, and town and fields were burned.  "He left a trail of destruction across the surrounding lands" 800 years before Sherman's march to the sea.  Ackroyd writes:  "He had created a desert, and called it peace."


_________

When the Wars of the Roses started in full, "there were fears  that this was becoming what was known as the "wide world."  A man who called himself 'Queen of the Faery' preached in the towns and villages of Kent."  Darling, who was this "Queen of the Faery?"  He sounds divine.  Why don't we know more about him?  He needs far more than one sentence.  


_______________

Ackroyd's book was a fascinating read.  He sums up the themes of his book at the end, which is "continuity" in the midst of change (for example, there is a village called Thatcham that essentially has been a village for 10,000 years), and the "endless variations upon the same principal theme or themes -- the uneasy balance between the sovereign and the more powerful nobles, the desire for war pitted against the overwhelming costs of conflict, the battel for mastery between Church and sovereign, the precarious unity of monarch and parliament..."  He also interesting postulates that English monarchs from the Normans on are all outsiders:  Angevins succeeded Normans, Welsh succeeded Angevins, Scots succeeded Welsh, and Hanoverians succeeded Scots.  "The English were a colonized people."  And going back through time, through Saxons and Romans and Celts, they were. 

Foundation (The History of England, #1)Foundation by Peter Ackroyd
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Ackroyd is deep and easy; he says great things, tells great stories, draws you in to great historical adventures, but in a handy, easy to reach kind of way.  If you are in want or need of some great history, then Ackroyd's your man.  There isn't any better place to start than Foundation, which tells a story of English history from what he poetically and wonderfully calls the times that "lie in mist and twilight" up to the first Tudor (which is a logical place to end, as the medieval switches to the Renaissance).  His history is strong and good, but its his writing style you should be reading him for; it's excellent.  And this isn't simply a list of kings and battles and Magna Carta; they are of course there, but interspersed are all sorts of tidbits of interest, written beautifully, like this:  "It is perhaps worth recording that in the years of 'the Anarchy'... (my note:  the time of war between King Stephen and the marvelous Matilda)the umbrella was introduced into England.  It has outlived cathedrals and palaces." It's writing like this that makes him such a pleasure.  He's not just regurgitating facts either; the last chapter sums up nicely not only the themes of the book, but also some of his views on history in general.  I highly recommend this (I liked Tudors as well).



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