Tuesday, January 29, 2013


The Hobbit: Or There and Back Again was originally published in 1937--seventy-six years ago--yet the story can still delight. Originally written for children; specifically, J.R.R. Tolkien reportedly wrote it for his own children; writing in a style that he felt his children would enjoy. Given the time period, it is not especially surprising that portions of the story where violence comes in, are not watered down as you might see in a more modern 'children's story.'

Image: A ripped off image of the full book jacket artwork. No, I'm not reading a first edition, mine is a reprint from Houghton Mifflin. I'm not sure, but I think its the fourth edition; fifty-ninth printing. hello nerds.

Its clear from the narrative however, that this story is written for children, and there are many nods and side notes given to the reader directly from the narrator. [Speaking directly to the reader is by no means done only in children's stories.] Alexandre Dumas, I'm looking at you.

And just like Dumas, Tolkien tells his readers things like; "Now if you wish, like the dwarves, to hear news of Smaug, you must go back again to the evening when he smashed the door and flew off in a rage, two days before." So begins chapter 14, in case you were wondering what that nasty worm had gotten up to. This type of dialog with the reader, doesn't show up in The Lord of the Rings, unless perhaps in the prologue. I guess I'll have to read it again.

So... Our hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, goes on a journey--accompanied by a baker's dozen of dwarves and a pro tem wizard--only to find that he will end up going further than ever the Lonely Mountain, or a pile of dragon gold, could ever take him. His adventures not only reform his demeanor, confidence and bravado, but will eventually reform Middle Earth itself. Bilbo grows from burden, to companion, to asset, to confidant, and eventually to leader, conscience and friend to the dwarves.

This is a wonderful story to read to younger children, or give to older children to read on their own. Tolkien very consciously avoids talking down to children, dumbing down the story, or flowering up the 'truth' of the story, as he sees it.

You may have heard that Peter Jackson and Co. has made a little film adaptation of this book, and will be rolling it out in three rather than the originally discussed, two episodes. I won't get into the movie here, but you can clickedy on over here to see it lamb basted by Noah Berlatsky for The Atlantic.

Get yourself a copy of The Hobbit and read it. If you have the chance, read it to child. sing the songs! I would look for the hardcover version: the maps are printed on the end papers, and the illustrations are by Tolkien himself. Tolkien has a great hand for stylized landscapes.

Not convinced? Okay, here's my Hobbit story. The Hobbit was assigned reading in my 8th grade English class. In the 8th grade, I was not a reader. The teacher sometimes read aloud in class, we had quizzes, which I tried to complete, but failed; but I found that as I read the questions on the quizzes, and eventually the final test, I still didn't know the answers. But I wanted to. I 'borrowed' my copy of the book at the end of the year, and read it over the summer! The Hobbit helped make me a reader.

Yeah, Read this book. smoke a pipe, drink some ale!

Friday, January 25, 2013

heart of the sea

In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex is Nathaniel Philbrick's re-telling of an infamous Nantucket whaling story, which formed the basis, or at least the germ, of Herman Melville's Moby Dick.

Philbrick is a native Nantucketer, and has made an effort to bring together the various stories of the Essex that have been told and published over the years--some by the very survivors of the tragedy--analyze, cross reference and fact check them, and then research the story and its setting, to compile a more complete and accurate narrative of the event, its making and its aftermath.

One of Philbrick's early indicators that not everything was being told, was the obvious contradictions between two eyewitness accounts of the tragedy, and the aftermath. After a little study, it became clear that the authors, in each case, simply left out some of the details that they felt may have placed them in a negative light. History is written by the victors*, and all that, right?

So Philbrick has woven the various stories together, and infilled some of the blanks in the narrative with research. The result is a very compelling story of survival and commentary on the accidents that can sometimes occur in nature, and what man does in the face of them.

Philbrick also gives a succinct, yet complete description of the techniques and tools used in whaling, the attitudes of the men involved--from the ship owners and townspeople, to the captains and mates, right down to the seaman, who were often taken advantage of in the whole venture. Philbrick asks hard questions, such as, why is it that the first men to die were black?

His follow up on the survivors, even late into their lives made for an interesting ending to the story, woven in with the end of whaling as a major industry after oil was discovered in Pennsylvania.

On the whole, a more enjoyable, informative and exciting book than Moby Dick. But then, it may just be my modern shortened attention spans talking there.

* Attributed to Winston Churchill, Napoleon Bonaparte, and Alex Haley by various sources. I love you internet.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

jefferson key

Cotton Malone is back in action. Malone returns in The Jefferson Key;  the seventh installment of this retired agent from the super-secret Magellan Billet, within the Justice Department, from author, Steve Berry.

Malone got out of the spy business, after it ruined his personal life and nearly killed him on various occasions. Now he is officially retired, though only fifty or so, and he lives in a quiet, northern European city, where he owns a bookstore.

Even though he retired from an American agency, in the past, Malone's adventures have been mainly outside the US, often times assisted by a few close European ties, with an occasional help from his friend, the President of the United States. But in The Jefferson Key, the action takes place mainly in America, and in close association with the president and white house staff. The adversary, in this case, is a secretive privateering organization, which has been plying the waters--and more recently, the world financial network--based on a Letter of Marque granted to their ancestors by George Washington.

Berry flexes his history muscles in this one, as he has in the past, and Cotton Malone and friends are soon tied up in a historical Gordian Knot, which they need to unravel in order to prevent catastrophe. The historical puzzle has a familiar characteristics: it involves the secret plans of some of the founding fathers, lost or hidden documents, secret codes and puzzles, and clues which may lie right under our noses, in plain sight! yeah, where have we seen that before

It was a fun romp nonetheless. I think I missed a few of Berry's books since the last one I read, The Charlemagne Pursuit, which I didn't like very much so I'll have to look for them at the library.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

once and future king

The Once and Future King is T.H. White’s famous retelling of the King Arthur story; a story which grows up with Arthur along the way. The books is actually four stories (or books) in one; each about a different time period in the legendary king's life. The first story: The Sword in the Stone is about how Arthur grew up and was educated by Merlyn in the countryside of England, and is much more fanciful and magical than the later stories. In fact, White makes a point of discussing how the magic that existed in Arthur's youth wanes as he gets older. There just aren't as many dragons and unicorns around any more.

The Sword in the Stone was first published in 1938. Disney made an animated version of this story in 1963. yeah, 50 years ago I remember seeing this movie in the theater with my dad. It must have been a birthday or something, and the movie must have been re-released because this would have been in the early to mid-seventies.

The Queen of Air and Darkness was published the following year, 1964, and was also published separately, and in a slightly different form, according to Wikipedia, as The Witch in the Wood. This is not a long story, and tells mainly of the three sisters Mogan le Fay, Morgause, and Elaine, daughters of the Earl of Cornwall, Gorlois and his wife Igraine. White tells us that Uther Pendragon wanted Igraine for himself and besieged and eventually killed the Earl and then married his widow. Uther's step-daughters were not happy about this and the feud continues on into Arthur's reign.

The Ill-Made Knight,  is the longest book and focuses mainly on Sir Lancelot, and his relationship with Arthur and Arthur's queen, Guenivere. I enjoyed this story very much, especially the complex love triangle these three form, that eventually lasts their entire lives. White's treatment of these characters is very modern, and the story of their mutual love is both complex and subtle. White turns these three legendary characters into real people. Guenivere, for example, is called, alternatively, Gwen and sometimes simply Jenny, by the men who love her.

The Candle in the Wind was first published in the composite edition in 1958. Its a kind of swan song, lets-wrap-things-up kind-of story. I can imagine this short story/novella being written to satisfy an audience who may have felt that things hadn't been completely wrapped up. I guess this story sort of fits the bill, but then White came back in the end and added one more story, published separately entitled: The Book of Merlyn. Many regard this as part of The Once and Future King series.

All through the stories White refers to Mallory as the go to source for much of his own information, and tells readers they can consult with Mallory themselves, if they would like additional information, which White may have left our of the story; considering said information to be be perhaps, too dull for his more modern readers. White is clearly a fan however, and even gives Mallory a final nod within the text of The Candle in the Wind.

Seems like the go to book for King Arthur, but there are lots to choose from! It was pretty good.