Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Fellowship of the Ring

by J.R.R. Tolkien
Ballantine Books, 1973 (originally published 1954).

This is at least my seventh time reading The Fellowship of the Ring. It's been about seven years since I last read it, and I'm a much different reader than I was any of the previous six times I've read it. I've read many more books, become a more critical reader, and have read especially broadly in the fantasy genre.

I'd forgotten how incredibly slow - dare I say plodding - is the pacing. One hundred pages in, Frodo has barely left the Shire. Two-thirds of the way through, he's in Rivendell and they're still debating what to do with the Ring. After fifteen years, the memory of the movies is more fresh in my mind than the first time I read the book and was waiting with bated breath to find out who or what the Black Riders were, and if they would be successful in finding the Ring. The old-fashioned, archaic language and resulting clunky dialog (how often can one think "Frodo son of Drogo" without cracking a grin or rolling eyes?) is exactly what I would criticize in books I read now.

But despite its faults, I love this series. I love the hobbits. No one but Gandalf seems to expect much of them, least of all the hobbits themselves. They love the small comforts of home, and can't imagine anything better than putting up their feet with some good food and pipeweed (amend that last to "a good book," and I'd be right there with them). And it's just because they love home so much that they do what they must to protect it. They are not heroes. They're just regular folk who, seeing a need to combat evil, do their best, even though they can't know the final outcome. It gives me hope that, if push comes to shove, maybe I could do the same. And that is why clunky dialog, archaic language, poetry, slow plot and all, I will read these books another seven times.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain

by Peter Sis
New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007.

Using simple pictures with little color to great effect, Peter Sis tells his story of growing up in Czechoslovakia when the country was behind the Iron Curtain. Ostensibly for children, the book doesn't hold back from exploring the complexities of living under a Communist regime. The author shows how he was brainwashed as a child and told what to draw, and follows him through his teenage years when he awakened to much of the censorship and control going on around him.

This book is an excellent example of the way in which a story can be powerfully told in graphic form. The Introduction and Afterword serve as the text that grounds the story in history - both the general history of the Cold War, and Peter's personal history as he eventually leaves his home country behind. The images make up the bulk of the story, giving a bird's eye view as we very quickly go through twenty or so years of Peter's life and in how small the elements of the illustrations are. Most of the illustrations are black and white, except for the red of Communist flags and the colors of Peter's art. Clips from his journals serve both to move the story along through time and to give readers a fuller view of what's going on in Peter's life, including such things as the music that influenced him and photographs from his childhood. This is a really excellent, rich story that I highly recommend.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

A Yankee Spy in Richmond

diary by Elizabeth Van Lew
edited and with an introduction by David Ryan
Mechanicsburg, PA : Stackpole Books, 1996.

Elizabeth Van Lew lived in Richmond, Virginia, and was educated in the North. She believed slavery was wrong and was loyal to the Union, giving much of her life and inheritance in furthering the Union cause. In particular, she spied and gave information on troop movement and supplies, and worked to better the conditions and protect escapees from Libby Prison. This is her wartime diary, incomplete at least in part due to her own vigilance in getting rid of evidence that could have incriminated her.

I first heard of this when reading my LibraryThing Early Reviewer copy of The Secrets of Mary Bowser. Mary was a former slave at the Van Lew residence, and was instrumental in Elizabeth's and Thomas McNiven's spy network. Unfortunately, perhaps due to Elizabeth's care in destroying documents or the way the diary was buried for years, very little mention is made of anything connected to Mary Bowser, and only a little more is included of Elizabeth's own spying (primarily letters inserted that have innocuous messages on their face, but a request for information once heat and acid is applied to the document).

The Introduction pretty much covers the most interesting parts of the diary, and it's hard to follow what happened because it's such a truncated account. You do, however, get a window into the mindset of Elizabeth Van Lew, who saw her work as being loyal to her country (rather than her state), and definitely saw the point of the Civil War as ending slavery. She was appalled by the treatment of Union soldiers. She had deep convictions and her behavior mirrored what she believed, even though it made her extremely unpopular in her hometown. The inclusion of letters at the end, both by and about Elizabeth Van Lew, round out the picture of her life. Recommended if you're interested in the historic time period or place.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

I Can't Complain: (all too) personal essays

by Elinor Lipman
Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013.

Ever since I read The Inn at Lake Devine in 2009, Elinor Lipman has been one of my "go to" authors when I need some light and fun fiction. So when I saw she'd come out with a book of essays - many of them previously published in various newspapers/periodicals - I had to check it out.

These thirty-one essays composed of broad subjects - family, writing, love & marriage - are truly delightful reading. She's funny one moment and making a thoughtful point the next, and even though she's in a different season of life than I am, her observations made me laugh and cry. I could completely relate to "No Thank You, I Think," in which she talks about why she now says "no" to some invitations. I, too, sometimes want to say "no" just to sit at home and read, and it was nice to know that someone else can not only admit it, but says so with aplomb. In one section, she talks about many aspects of being a writer, from looking for (and providing) blurbs, to the anxieties and frustrations involved in being the author at an event. Her essays about her husband, from a Coupling column she wrote regularly as the "long married" woman, were funny and heartwarming. A highly enjoyable read for anyone who enjoys humorous essays or getting to know a favorite author.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Before Freedom, When I Can Just Remember

selected and edited by Berlinda Hurmence
Winston-Salem, N.C. : J.F. Blair, c1989.

During the Great Depression, one of the Federal Writers' Project activities was locating former slaves and interviewing them. The resultant collection of these oral histories has been microfilmed by the Library of Congress, the Slave Narratives, which make up seventeen volumes (10,000 pages) of material. In this volume of a publisher's series of the oral histories, twenty-seven of these narratives of former slaves have been chosen giving a range of views on slavery in South Carolina.

The introduction by Belinda Hurmence is worthwhile reading before diving in to the interviews. She mentions that many former slaves talk positively about their experiences, and offers a few ideas on why this is so - looking back on the past often gives us a rosier view, the Great Depression, and the fact that a black person is being interviewed by a white person all probably had an impact to varying degrees on what the former slave would say about his or her experiences. Even so, when you read between the lines about how a master might treat his slaves, a person's memories of being sold or parents being whipped, it's heartbreaking no matter what the person says about their master being kind or "not hardhearted."

The interviews are taken from various places around the state of South Carolina, including the islands, and covers the experience of field hands and house slaves, men and women, who were children during the Civil War. I'm not quite sure why the editor decided to shift things chronologically, however, because I think that the way someone says something and the order they put it in gives it a meaning on its own, regardless of the actual chronology of events. Even so, I found these interviews a fascinating exploration of slavery from those who experienced it themselves; this is worthwhile reading for any student of American history.

Monday, July 15, 2013

The Perilous Gard

by Elizabeth Pope
New York : Scholastic, Inc. 1993.

When her sister Alicia thoughtlessly sends a note to Queen Mary about how abominable the castle where Princess Elizabeth is kept, her sister Kate is exiled. She is sent to the remote Perilous Gard, where she soon finds out that the gruff but kind Sir Geoffrey and a young man named Christopher Heron have a secret. Some of the people of the castle seem afraid to tell her too much, and only reference Those in the Well with a bit of awe. Kate can't help but get involved, whatever Christopher Heron may tell her!

This was a Newbery Honor book in 1975, and it's too bad it's not better known because it's a really enjoyable book, and didn't feel dated at all. This was the sort of book that I hesitated to put down at the end of my breaks at work, and wanted to pick up whenever I had a free moment. The plot is generally compelling, as the tension builds and time is running out. Those of the Well had a deliciously creep other-worldliness to them. Kate's as strong a character as some heroines of modern fantasy. She and Christopher were fabulous characters, and I enjoyed their banter. I would unhesitatingly read it again.

A word on the cover: I've included the cover that was on the copy I read, but in my opinion it's awful. Clearly no one in the department that worked on it had read the book or Kate would not have that sort of desperate heroine look about her.

Saturday, July 13, 2013


by David Almond
London : Hodder, 1998.

Michael and his family have recently moved to a house that needs a lot of work, when his baby sister is born early. Meanwhile, he finds a man who seems little more than skin in bones in the broken down garage, and together he and his new friend Mina try to help him - but who is he, and what is he?

Some books are easy to read, review, and move on. This is not one of them. Skellig, though short, is one of those stories that lingers as you think about the characters and writing and events. Michael realistically feels a little bit of jealousy but also deeply cares about his sister. Mina is homeschooled and proud of it, and she's so sure of who she is that you can't help but love her. And Skellig... well, he's a bit of an enigma. He's a being that can't be explained in just a few words. In fact, I feel like I should really reread the book before I try to make any further pronouncements. I was left smiling and just a bit unsettled, in the sense that I couldn't quite wrap my brain around the story without thinking some more.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Into the Looking-Glass Wood

by Alberto Manguel
San Diego, CA : Harcourt, 2000.

I was first introduced to Alberto Manguel's essays through The Library at Night, an homage to libraries private and public, and a rumination on reading including philosophy, history and literary criticism. Into the Looking-Glass Wood is similar in erudition and style but, much like the book from which he takes its name, its topics are all over the place. In this, you will see more of the man and perhaps a little less of the reader.

Libraries and books are my passion, so naturally I feel more drawn to a book where every essay is about that, and one theme builds on another in a natural progression. That's not to say that I didn't enjoy this collection: "St. Augustine's Computer," a rumination on the tension between books and technology, is worth the price of the book alone, and "Taking Chesterton at His Word" caused me to download a few of that author's books on my e-reader to rectify the fact that I've read nothing by G.K. Chesterton. It simply means that, as a different person with different interests from Manguel's, I was less than enthralled with some essays that had very little meaning or interest for me, personally. Another reader may appreciate more than I the essay on erotic literature or would have read Richard Outram to more ably connect with what Manguel had to say about him. So though I found it to be a mixed bag, I can fairly confidently recommend it to readers of books about books with the suggestion that there's something for everyone, and it's worthy of thought and discussion long after reading.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Ballistics: poems

by Billy Collins
New York : Random House, c2008.

In this book of poems, former U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins ruminates on the everyday, love, divorce, solitude, and more.

The poems are free verse with two or three lines per stanza and hardly a rhyme, but full of succinct and memorable images such as in "Divorce":
Once, two spoons in bed,
now tined forks

across a granite table
and the knives they have hired.
It's not dense, but it's not simple, either, as I ponder the layers of meaning in the imagery. Some of his poems are playful, such as "Adage," which begins,
When it's late at night and branches
are banging against the windows,
you might think that love is just a matter

of leaping out of the frying pan of yourself
into the fire of someone else,
but it's a little more complicated than that.
He then proceeds to pick apart love and adages, and cleverly turn their meanings to his purposes. Every now and then, he captured a feeling that I instantly understood but could never put into words, such as a reaction of sorrow and guilt "On the Death of a Next-Door Neighbor":
The harmony of this house, not his,
might be missing a voice,
the hallways jumpy with the cry of the telephone --
This was my first collection of Billy Collins' poems, and won't be the last.