Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

Why I Read It: Correction - re-read it.

Summary: The quest to regain a homeland is complicated by competition between several races of beings in Middle-Earth.

My Thoughts: For some reason, I had forgotten how much of a hero Bilbo actually is.

I guess that when you read something at 13 and then read it again three decades later, things change. My broader view of the world in my 40s definitely impacted the way I viewed this book this time around, though I have to admit that I have trouble pulling myself away from thoughts of World War I when thinking deeply about this tale. It just seems too symmetrical when the Battle of the Five Armies finally breaks out in the end, and the flying force of eagles swoops in at the last second to save the day. But that's a whole different topic of discussion.

As much as I had misremembered Bilbo's level of heroism, I also had overplayed in my mind the role that Smeagol played. Perhaps I've got the stories jumbled, but I kept waiting for him to come back into the tale. Perhaps, so, too, did Tolkien. His story seems like such an open, unfinished portion of this book, that it only makes sense that his trail is picked up again in the Lord of the Rings series. Maybe the scenes of the early animated movie representation of the book stuck with me in a major way, influencing the way I've always thought about this tale. I know I expected more dwarves to die in the end, and that is a direct result of the first movie. I can still see the "camera" panning over the wounded warriors after the battle.

I think what I love best about the story is the level of mystery with which Tolkien taunts us, particularly regarding the life of Gandalf. He comes and goes, and for much of the book is dealing with "other business" in a separate, vaguely-defined world. He doesn't care to let the adventuring party know exactly what it is he is doing and where, and they don't press him on it; they know they shouldn't. His stiffness and brook-no-interference attitude lends a bit of subtle comedy to a book that is otherwise engrossing for its pure fantasy aspects. (There was, of course, the blatant joke about the founding of golf! Beyond that, the humor is masterfully masked within the personalities of the characters).

Tolkien excels at placing his characters in binds, and figuring out how to have the smallest and supposedly meekest and least-equipped character pry them free in believable ways. While we are supposed to carry with us a suspension of disbelief anyway when we read SciFi and Fantasy, if things get too far-fetched from what we consider humanly possible an author will lose us. Tolkien never does.

We end with triumph and tragedy, and must accept the latter with the former. It's something American audiences are only now starting to accept. As isolationist as many of us believe we are - does the average American really know what's happening in the world? - we have begun to see that the good guys do not always win and that sometimes victory is tainted with unexpected loss.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

On Writing by Stephen King

Why I Read It: Recommended by m brother-in-law, a fellow writer.

Summary: Stephen King tells us how he began writing, what he avoids, what he has in his writer's toolbox, and all about the accident that nearly took his life.

My Thoughts: Stephen King can make my skin crawl writing about himself.

I have, like many Americans, a long term relationship with Mr. King. My dad and I decided to read one of his books concomitantly, planning to share our thoughts after the last page had been turned. We loved it. I went to college to a heavy workload, studying to be the historian I am today; my dad went into the winter as a hibernating landscaper, reading everything he could get his hands on. The books I couldn't read because I was thrust deeply into the worlds of the Renaissance and the Early Roman Empire, my dad practically read to me over the phone.

Now, two decades later, my dad gone, Mr. King and I meet again, yet on a more professional course. And I find, amazingly, we have much in common.

No, I am not making millions, and no, I haven't even dabbled in fiction - yet. But we share a passion that he describes artfully, the simple joy of letting words flow from our minds onto the page. We write.

More than that, we share the art of the writer. In this book he definitively tells us all to read if we want to write, and to become obsessive about it if we want to succeed. I'm there. I never leave the house without a book in my hands. Heck, I bring one to bed and carry it around the house with me all day. He instructs us to read in long lines at turnpike tollbooths; I can do him one better. I read at stop signs if there are cars stretching out into the distance. I guess in a way it's validation. I can now point to Stephen King and say to my wife, "See? If he says it's what I should do..."

Even so, he surprised me with some original thoughts about writing that I will take to heart. My first slap-in-the-face lessons came from a college professor, who in one corrected paper on the life of King Henry V of England changed my life. This book is along the same revelatory route. King dropped a few "Eurekas" on me, making me look at writing from new perspectives.

And as exciting as that is for me, as I read the book I couldn't help thinking about my dad and how much he would have loved it, how learning about where the ideas originated for some of my dad's favorite King tales would have made him laugh out loud. And it would have led to phone calls, and laughter on my end of the line.

As much as King makes me squirm, he makes me laugh. His no-nonsense, downeast Maine personality shines through this book in a way I wasn't expecting. In a way, I hate admitting to my brother-in-law that I've finished reading it, as that means I have to give it back.