Filed under: Classic Fiction, Fantasy, Ways of Reading | Tags: book, book review, books, fantasy, fellowship of the ring, frodo, frodo baggins, j.r.r. tolkien, literature, lord of the rings, middle-earth, mordor, samwise gamgee, sauron, tolkien
As I’ve mentioned on here a few times – it being the only thing I have to write about, apart from how cold it is here* – I’ve been rereading The Fellowship of the Ring. This was one of those rare reads that happened not merely because I wanted to reread the book, but because it felt necessary to do so.
Believe it or not, I’m not going to write a whole post about the trials and tribulations of my life and how they drove me to what’s become a comforting book to me, but that’s pretty much what got me rereading Fellowship. That and how I was constantly humming the soundtrack to the film of The Fellowship, driving insane the volunteer who had to crash at my place for two weeks while we ran semi-final spelling bees around my town. It seemed the only way to quit humming the damn soundtrack would be to either stream the film (which would kill about a third of my December bandwidth) or reread the book, which I already had loaded on my kindle.
I didn’t stop humming the soundtrack, but I did get a few awesome dreams prominently featuring Samwise Gamgee out of it. And the big thing I was looking for, to escape from my dreary existence of running a noble Peace Corps project (and six spelling bees a day for two weeks), was there in force. What’s interesting to me now that I’ve finished the book is why I turned to Lord of the Rings in the first place for this sort of “comfort read;” because to face it, the book can be wordy and at times hopeless even though I know how things will end up. Why Lord of the Rings and not Harry Potter, if I was just looking for escapism?
It’s all in what Tolkien does so well. The book may be wordy, there may be more songs in there than I really want to read (and more songs in Elvish than I really want to skip over), the descriptions of the fellowship’s journey may at some points seem overly long for the relative lack of action, but all of these things serve in Tolkien’s world creation. What’s so comforting to me about the books is, I think, how complete the world is that Tolkien writes about. I’m hardly the first to observe this, but the depth of history and detail in his works, the sense that behind even a pair of names briefly mentioned there lies a complete history, makes the world of Middle-earth real enough that I can forget, occasionally, my own world of weekly showers and daily spelling bees.
The way the characters speak, sing, move through their world, all points to this history that Tolkien has mapped out. As when Elrond speaks of the Ring’s history at the Council of Elrond:
Of Númenor he spoke, its glory and its fall, and the return of the Kings of Men to Middle-earth out of the deeps of the Sea, borne upon the wings of storm. Then Elendil the Tall and his mighty sons, Isildur and Anárion, became great lords; and the North-realm they made in Arnor, and the South-realm in Gondor above the mouths of Anduin. But Sauron of Mordor assailed them, and they made the Last Alliance of Elves and Men, and the hosts of Gil-galad and Elendil were mustered in Arnor.
When characters begin to delve into history like this, there’s something almost biblical about the tone; the sense of a history so deep that it’s entered into myth and legend, remembered only by a few who are removed from the time of the world. Or, as Tolkien describes Galadriel, and elves:
Already she seemed to him, as by men of later days Elves still at times are seen: present and yet remote, a living vision of that which has already been left far behind by the flowing streams of Time.
It’s this tone that draws me in, my attraction to a world with a history so complete and yet so separate from our own, but also the simplicity that is at the heart of the story. There are characters who falter, who are not at all times good or pleasant: Boromir, Legolas during the early stages of the fellowship’s journey, Galadriel when she confesses how she has long thought of acquiring the Ring of Power, even Bilbo when he nearly fails to give up the Ring at book’s opening. But the story at heart is such a simple one, of the fight against a force that is undeniably bad, that it is comforting to sink into that tale of evil versus a good that is undeniably good for its opposition to Mordor.
As I wrote earlier, that I find the book so comforting is a little curious because it’s not, at heart, a comforting book. I know that Frodo will destroy the Ring with Samwise’s help, that they will return to the Shire, but there is also throughout a sense of the irreparable passing of time, of the way that things will never be the same whatever happens to the Ring, because of the Ring: that Middle-earth will be washed over by Sauron’s forces, or that the Ring will be destroyed and with it the last strength of people such as the elves of Lórien. And that, that is sad; because as we see from Frodo’s first glimpse of Lórien, the world is one that exists nowhere else, and one day soon won’t exist even in Middle-earth:
It seemed to him that he had stepped through a high window that looked on a vanished world. A light was upon it for which his language had no name. All that he saw was shapely, but the shapes seemed at once clear cut, as if they had been first conceived and drawn at the uncovering of his eyes, and ancient as if they had endured for ever. He saw no colour but those he knew, gold and white and blue and green, but they were fresh and poignant, as if he had at that moment first perceived them and made for them names new and wonderful. In winter here no heart could mourn for summer or for spring. No blemish or sickness or deformity could be seen in anything that grew upon the earth. On the land of Lórien there was no stain.
I’ll be rereading the other two books of The Lord of the Rings, of course, but I wanted to write about it because my reading of Fellowship is so linked, now, to what’s going on in my life right now – which though nothing bad, is sometimes overwhelming and exhausting.** And reading these books, even though they are (I know, I know) really one book, deserves and requires more than one post, not least because of questions like how the films influence my reading (the book is, I think, more welcoming to me because of the films; Peter Jackson did such a good job pulling lines from the book that I can see and hear Ian McKellan when I read Gandalf), how that almost biblical tone makes the book feel a part of my history, and how Tolkien’s skill at world creation makes it possible for the book to take on that tone of lasting history that I find so comforting.
And then, too, there’s how the book opens, which seems to me as perfect a way as any can: “This book is largely concerned with Hobbits…”
* By way of example: my toothpaste froze; the bananas I had sitting in my “living room” got that funny refrigerated look to them; when I go to bed I do so with my coil heater a few feet from me, a bottle of hot water under the covers, long johns, and sometimes a hat and gloves depending on the night.
** But, hey! The spelling bee final is tomorrow, the library grant is due on Monday, winter break begins in about two weeks…
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: black friday, book, book aid, books, charitable giving, christmas, donations, holiday season, library, thanksgiving
I’m going off the beaten track today (though not off the cliched track, it seems) in honor of the holiday season and as my mild protest of Black Friday and the wasteful, rampant consumerism of the day.
If you read this blog regularly you’re probably vaguely familiar with some of the stuff I do in the Peace Corps, and that one thing I’m working on now is building an English language library in my school. I mean, that’s only half of it – we’re also working to improve the “infrastructure” of the library (I don’t know what that means, but it’s a good Peace Corps buzzword) by setting up a catalog system, and to encourage students to check out more books and thus read more. What this all means is that I am right now spending a lot of time trying not to tear my hair out, downloading trial versions of cataloging programs and testing them, and researching reading programs that have been successful in American schools.
Maybe you can see where this is going. It is, after all, the holiday season in America, smack dab between Thanksgiving and Christmas, which means it’s time for pleas for donations to go out. If you’re thinking that this post is a plea for you to donate books to me, you’re about halfway right; it’s a plea, for sure, but among other things I’ve learned during this project, it’s that the people who will work to collect and ship books halfway around the world are the ones you’ve worked with back home. And in my frustrating search for organizations that exist to donate books to Eastern European countries
(they don’t exist, not that I can tell), I’ve come to realize that there are a lot of great organizations that need your books as much as my school does.
I am as much, or more of, a hoarder of books than anyone I know, and only the impossibility of fitting my library in the two fifty-pound bags I could bring into the Peace Corps broke me of my desire to own pretty much Every Book Ever Published. But a lot of these books that I owned I never read. I never will read them. These books sat on my shelves for years gathering dust, and only having to move forced me to get rid of some of them.
So it being the season of giving and all, why not look at your own books and consider whether you really need to hang on to all of them? Why not pull out your boxes of children’s books that have been residing in your attic for twenty years and try finding a better home for them? Instead of waiting, like I did, to be forced to get rid of some of your books, why not do so now? It doesn’t, after all, cost anything to give away those books you’ve read once and don’t expect to return to, or the stacks you picked up as the result of some crazed enthusiasm rather than actual interest at the latest library sale.
It’s not, after all, only schools in Eastern Europe that need English-language books. There are countless schools and classrooms in the States that can use your unloved or forgotten books, and all it takes is a little legwork on your part to find local organizations that need your reading materials. (As a example, before I left my apartment in Philly I donated a lot of my books to the hospital at which I worked. If I hadn’t spent a year there, it wouldn’t have occurred to me that hospitals need books to distribute to their long-term patients.)
It’s easiest, and probably best, to donate to local organizations – to call your local library, schools and hospital to find out whether they’re interested in taking your books. But below I’ve put together a list of larger-scale organizations that could use your donations of books and/or money. These are geared to American readers, but if you’re coming from another country and know a great organization that could use donations, let me know and I’ll add it to the list.
- Darien Book Aid sends books to Peace Corps Volunteers working on library projects. I received a box from them and can vouch for the quality and usefulness of their books. If you live near them, in Connecticut, you can donate books, or you can provide a cash donation to help pay for shipping books to volunteers.
- Books for Africa sends shipping containers of books and takes cash donations to defray the cost of sending books overseas.
- Book Aid International, much like Books for Africa, accepts donations of money to help pay for book shipments.
- Books Behind Bars doesn’t handle book donations, but they list addresses of prisons in need of books and general instructions for donating your books to these prison libraries.
- The Prison Book Program is located in Massachusetts and doesn’t recommend shipping book donations, so I’ve linked to a page on their site with details on other prison book programs that may be closer to you.
- A resource page listing Native American K – 12 schools. There are some specific donation requests that you can explore from this site, notably the If I Can Read, I Can Do Anything program.
- Adopt a Library is a site with information on libraries seeking donations.
Filed under: Book Reviews | Tags: book, book review, books, buddy glass, carpenters, glass family, j. d. salinger, literature, raise high the roof beam, seymour glass, seymour: an introduction, stories that aren't stories
My thoughts on Salinger might best be described as, I don’t know, generally admiring but uninterested. I’m vaguely aware that many people have strong feelings on him, and that a lot of these feelings grow out of The Catcher in the Rye‘s required reading status in high schools across America. I’ve read The Catcher in the Rye three times, though not once since graduating high school; and maybe Salinger doesn’t capture a universal teenage voice (is there such a thing? no more than there is one universal human voice, I don’t think) but he does create a unique voice for Holden Caulfield.
A couple posts ago I wrote about works that send me to google to figure out how “true” they are, so it must have been fate that brought me a copy of Raise High the Roof Beam Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction, thereby sending me to google to try disentangling the lines between Salinger and the narrator of these two novellas.
Both novellas are about the Glass family, in particular Seymour. It has been a while since I’ve read Salinger, so it was only partway through the first novella that I realized Salinger has written about these characters in other works, most memorably (for me) in “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.” (Any of you who love Salinger are thinking “duhhhh” right now, but sometimes I am not the most observant reader, or one with a very good memory.) Both are narrated by Buddy Glass, a writer who bears some resemblance to Salinger, even quoting in Seymour: An Introduction a story from Salinger’s Nine Stories, but in the novella written by Buddy Glass.
This may be the result of feeling generally frazzled (in the past two weeks I’ve helped run three spelling bees in villages near me, with eight more bees coming in the next two weeks; I’m beginning to put together a grant; my host sister Ava wanted to bake a “cake” [that is, a giant chocolate chip cookie] this afternoon), or the result of the style of Salinger’s writing, but I feel oddly incapable of putting together a review on these novellas. The first, Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters, doesn’t have much of a plot, but it is recognizable as a story. Buddy learns his brother Seymour is getting married, and obtains three days leave to go to New York for the wedding.
As with The Catcher in the Rye, the plot of this novella isn’t real notable. What gets me are Salinger’s descriptions, like this one of the overpowering sun as Buddy rides in a car with other wedding guests:
I felt as though we were all being saved from being caught up by the sun’s terrible flue only by the anonymous driver’s enormous alertness and skill.
And then a bit later, Buddy tries to answer the question of why he got into a car with a bunch of wedding guests he didn’t know, and why he then remained in the car for the interminable ride, writing that:
…the year was 1942, that I was twenty-three, newly drafted, newly advised in the efficacy of keeping close to the herd – and, above all, I felt lonely. One simply jumped into loaded cars, as I see it, and stayed seated in them. (25)
Some of Salinger’s descriptions, like a “box of Louis Sherry candies – half empty, and with the unconsumed candies all more or less experimentally squeezed,” are so spot-on that I feel this post, essentially an excuse to quote a bunch of lines from the book, is excusable.
Light though Raise High may be on plot, it does have one: Buddy travels to New York, goes to the wedding, finds that it has been called off, jumps into a car with other wedding guests, and then spends the day listening as they abuse Seymour for not showing up for his own wedding. In the second novella of the book, Seymour: An Introduction, Salinger abandons all pretense of plot. The novella is Buddy’s attempt to write about Seymour following his suicide, and is as much a digression as a piece about Seymour. Buddy directs comments to the reader and remarks upon his own writing career and life, which often veers towards Salinger’s own, as when Buddy writes of receiving:
…poignant Get-Well-Soon notes from old readers of mine who have somewhere picked up the bogus information that I spend six months of the year in a Buddhist monastery and the other six in a mental institution. (132)
Buddy also writes at times of his intentions for the text at hand; so that even if things did not turn out as he intended, the reader knows where he had planned to go with the writing:
You can’t imagine what big, hand-rubbing plans I had for this immediate space. They appear to have been designed, though, to look exquisite on the bottom of my wastebasket. (142)
Although Buddy quotes from Seymour’s letters and other writings, the novella basically lacks form and simply follows Buddy’s train of thought, which frequently lands on writing and Buddy’s intentions for his own work. One of my favorite parts of the novella was when Buddy wrote of what he wants the Seymour he writes of here to do:
What is it I want (italics all mine) from a physical description of him? More, what do I want it do do? I want it to get to the magazine, yes; I want to publish it. But that isn’t it – I always want to publish. It has more to do with the way I want to submit it to the magazine. In fact, it has everything to do with that. I think I know. I know very well I know. I want it to get down there without my using either stamps or a Manila envelope. If it’s a true description, I should be able to just give it train fare, and maybe pack a sandwich for it and a little something hot in a thermos, and that’s all. (164)
What this novella does, though, is to blur the lines between truth and fiction, to make it unclear where Salinger’s craft lays and where Buddy’s, where the obvious details Salinger pulls from his own life end and where Buddy’s attempts to create his brother on the page begin. Not much may happen in these novellas, sure – nothing happens in the second – but the way Salinger plays with the form of the stories is fun and rewarding to see.
(This is, isn’t it, an inexcusably bad post? But I enjoyed the book and wanted to write something on it, even if of poor quality apart from the quotes from the novellas themselves. I guess that, like Buddy Glass, my hopes for this piece of writing were above my current capabilities.)
Filed under: meme, Nonfiction, Ways of Reading | Tags: book, books, boswell, capote, gabriel garcia marquez, in cold blood, life of johnson, literary nonfiction, literature, marquez, martinus scriblerus, meme, nabokov, nonfiction, one hundred years of solitude, speak memory, the things they carried, tim o'brien, truman capote, vladimir nabokov
Is it really fair that just two weeks after forcing me to define what “literary writing” is (I did not really define it, for those of you keeping track) the folks at the Blue Bookcase are asking for a definition of “literary nonfiction”? I mean, more accurately, they’re asking if I believe there is literary non-fiction. Of course I do! Of course there is plenty of literary non-fiction!
That said, I am not really sure how I would define it other than to say that, as with literary fiction, I know it when I see it. But like Connie at the Blue Bookcase says, I’d generally consider literary nonfiction to be any non-fiction book that places some emphasis on the aesthetic aspects of writing. And it’s a work of nonfiction that is maybe trying to do something new, in the sometimes confused world of fiction and nonfiction, like Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.
If someone says there is not such a thing as literary nonfiction, I will probably have no choice but to roll over and die. How about Boswell’s Life of Johnson? (Entering the dangerous realm of books I haven’t read but maybe one day will. Maybe.) How about Nabokov’s Speak, Memory? Marquez’s Living to Tell the Tale?
How about works that claim to be nonfiction but are really fiction, like the Memoirs of Martinus Scriblerus? (Thanks GRE! On a side note, this is one of those books that you can’t find a decent image for – which somehow increases my interest in reading it, incomplete or no.) Or those works that have a distinct grounding in events that, you know, actually happened, but are themselves fiction, like The Book Thief, or some of Hemingway’s novels, or Tim O’Brien’s The Things We Carried, which itself explores at length the question of what is “true” and “not true”?
Not all of these works I’m throwing out are nonfiction, strictly speaking, but in my mind they all land pretty close. As with In Cold Blood, it’s sometimes hard to draw a distinct line between fiction and nonfiction, and as O’Brien explores in his stories, sometimes what is true factually is not the most true thing we can find.
It’s typical of me that I turn a pretty simple question into a debate about truthiness, but I can’t help it because I’m sitting here at school waiting for classes to start for the afternoon and making plans for my adult English class I have tonight and trying to figure out my nightmare schedule for the next two and a half weeks (picture 10 spelling bees, mostly in villages about thirty minutes from my town), and am seeking desperately to think about something a little deeper than, I don’t know, how many “English stars” my students have to accumulate in order to win a Beanie Baby. And so often the books that seem the most true to me are not true in any strict sense. Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude is one of the most true books I can think of, although it is definitely not literary nonfiction. It is literary fiction that captures something essential and real about the world, that maybe couldn’t be captured just by the facts, although some facts do make their way in, as with the banana massacre. (And hey, can’t we add Marquez to our “is it fiction or not?” list, with his The General in His Labyrinth? We can! We can!)
I have veered woefully off course. But to answer the original question, yes, I think there is such a thing as literary nonfiction, and I define it in about the same way I define literary fiction. But I also believes there’s some ever-shifting gray area between literary fiction and literary nonfiction, that some of the best works manage to shift across. I like those books that make me question something about my world or that send me to google in an effort to figure out whether an event is “true” or not. Like those dreams referencing earlier dreams that will always frustrate me as I try to figure out whether I really am footnoting my own dreams in later dreams, or if I am creating “past” dreams, I like the works that shake my world up just enough that I am left unsure of where I stand.
Filed under: Book Reviews, Classic Fiction | Tags: book, book review, books, castle of otranto, classics, gothic fiction, horace walpole, literature
My interest in The Castle of Otranto was partly stirred by memorizing (well, trying to memorize) its baffling plot while I studied for the literature GRE, but mostly by Amanda’s review of the book over at The Zen Leaf. Although she wasn’t a big fan of the book, something about her description of the plot caught me. I am not one who can long resist reading a book that opens with a prince being crushed by a giant helmet on his wedding day.
Horace Walpole wrote The Castle of Otranto, and originally claimed that the work was a translation from the French. It’s widely seen as the first Gothic novel, and although it was first published in 1764, Walpole claimed it came from a 1529 manuscript. The style of the book reminds me of what works I’ve read from that earlier period; conversation tends to come second to description of conversation, and even what speaking there is doesn’t attempt to recreate the cadences of real speech, but exists to pass on information.
The short novel takes place over three days (according to Manfred at novel’s end, anyway; I found it hard to keep track of time) at the Castle of Otranto. Manfred, the castle’s lord, is crushed (ha, ha) after his son Conrad is crushed, literally, on his wedding day by a giant helmet that falls from the sky. Following his son’s death Manfred seeks the advice of the Friar Jerome; he wants to divorce his wife, Hippolita, and marry Isabella (who was to marry his son) so that he can have a male heir.
Why all the fuss? There is an ancient prophecy about the castle, and Manfred fears that it is coming true: “That the castle and lordship of Otranto should pass from the present family, whenever the real owner should be grown too large to inhabit it.”
Isabella, unwilling to marry Manfred, runs away and hides with the aid of a peasant, Theodore. Because of Jerome’s efforts to dissuade Manfred from marrying Isabella, by claiming that she loves Theodore, Manfred decides to kill the youth; but when Theodore lowers his shirt slightly from around his neck in preparation for his beheading, Friar Jerome sees a birthmark and recognizes the peasant as his son.
Manfred is interrupted from making any further decisions regarding Theodore’s life by the arrival of knights from another kingdom seeking Isabella. These knights, to give you a better sense of the feel of this scene, arrive bearing a sword so large one hundred men are needed to carry it.
The knights and Manfred are each trying to find Isabella first. Theodore, locked in a tower following his near-beheading, is freed by Manfred’s daughter, Matilda (who he falls in love with), and races to find Isabella. The pair end up in a cave, rumored to be haunted, which is found by one of the knights. Not realizing that the knights are on his side, Theodore wounds the knight, who is then discovered to be Isabella’s father, Frederic. They race back to the castle so the knight can be treated.
Frederic’s wounds turn out not to be serious. In the course of treatment, Frederic falls in love with Matilda, and Manfred and Frederic agree to marrying each others daughters: Frederic with Matilda, Manfred with Isabella. Although Matilda and Theodore are in love with each other, Manfred remains under the illusion that Isabella and Theodore are having an affair. He goes to the chapel in search of them, with a knife, and stabs his own daughter, before realizing he’s found Matilda and Theodore in the chapel, not Isabella and Theodore.
Matilda dies, and Theodore is revealed (by the vision of the giant Alfonso) to be the true prince of Otranto, via some baffling and heretofore unknown trysts. Theodore eventually marries Isabella because she is the only one who can understand his lasting sadness over Matilda’s death.
There are a lot of ridiculous elements to the plot: the giant helmet (or, “casque”) crushing Conrad, the giant sword found by Frederic’s knights and then carried to the Castle of Otranto, the giant Alfonso appearing to declare Theodore the true heir of the castle and then ascending to heaven, and the innumerable discoveries of heretofore unknown relations. It strikes me, stylistically, as a book you’ll either love or hate, and something about the tone hit me in the right place. I really, really liked this book. Take the description of the arrival of the knights, and how the word choice pushes the scene just slightly over the top:
Manfred’s heart misgave him when he beheld the plumage on the miraculous casque shaken in concert with the sounding of the brazen trumpet.
Or this exchange, after Manfred has instructed Jerome to leave his newly discovered son, Theodore, and go to discover who is arriving at the castle:
“I acknowledge I have been too hasty,” said Manfred. “Father, do you go to the wicket, and demand who is at the gate.”
“Do you grant me the life of Theodore?” replied the Friar.
“I do,” said Manfred; “but inquire who is without!”
Jerome, falling on the neck of his son, discharged a flood of tears, that spoke the fulness of his soul.
“You promised to go to the gate,” said Manfred.
“I thought,” replied the Friar, “your Highness would excuse my thanking you first in this tribute of my heart.”
This conversation is so ridiculous – the idea that Jerome has just discovered his long-lost son in Theodore, has just saved Theodore from being beheaded, and how oblivious Manfred is to this in his insistence that Jerome “go to the gate.”
Moments later Manfred learns that knights are at the gate, and that their arrival is no way connected to some cosmic displeasure at his plan of beheading Theodore; rather, they are they to question Manfred’s right to the castle. Manfred tells Jerome that his son, Theodore, is to be imprisoned:
“Good heaven! my lord!” cried Jerome, “your Highness did but this instant freely pardon my child – have you so soon forgot the interposition of heaven?”
“Heaven,” replied Manfred, “does not send Heralds to question the title of a lawful Prince. I doubt whether it even notifies its will through Friars – but that is your affair, not mine. At present you know my pleasure; and it is not a saucy Herald that shall save your son, if you do not return with the Princess.”
I’m over quoting, but I want you to get a sense of the tone of the novel, which is fluffy and excessive and somehow kind of wonderful. This morning I began to read (I think from the scene I quoted so much above, actually) while I was making Turkish coffee, and I got so distracted by the book that my coffee boiled all over the stove and I had to make a second pot. If there is one true test of the quality of a book I would guess that that is it, and that The Castle of Otranto passed.