Thursday, April 27, 2017

The Two Towers

The Two Towers, by J. R. R. Tolkien

Brona's LOTR readalong has been so very fun!  I haven't read these books in years and (as we all know) they are just so fantastic. And I have a little treat for all lovers of Middle-Earth; my mom sent me a link to this letter from Tolkien, describing various details of things.  It's good stuff: The Tolkien Letter That Every Lover of Middle-Earth Must Read.

In The Two Towers, the Fellowship splits into two groups (well, three for most of it).  Tolkien does this funny thing; where most writers (especially now) would alternate chapters, keeping both storylines going at once, he does not.  He simply splits the book in half and tackles each story separately, which means we are consecutively immersed in each one.  It's quite a shock, halfway through, to suddenly leave Aragorn and company in order to find Frodo and Sam.

Everybody knows the plot, so I don't know that I need to recap it.  Instead I'll just talk about some points that caught my attention this time through.

Ents.  Ents are pretty interesting; their age isn't compared with Tom Bombadil's, but they're older than just about anything else, and they've lost their women.  I think that's just fascinating, how Treebeard tells this story with the men preferring wilderness and forest, and the women going for orderly cultivation, gardens and agriculture, and they wind up completely separated.   The scholarly footnoter theorizes that the Entwives were destroyed during wars in the area that became the Brown Lands -- it's amazing just how much of Middle-Earth is blighted or blasted or poisoned -- but Tolkien always holds out the possibility that they escaped.  The Ents hope to one day find their wives again, but it doesn't seem too likely.  I really like how Tolkien plays on the fundamentally different goals of men and women to create beings that let it go too far; it winds up destroying them.  Marriage seems to me to be this thing where we take these two natures and try to channel them into a shared project of building a family, and the Ents couldn't do it.

Speaking of the Brown Lands -- at the beginning, we mostly see the pretty parts of Middle-Earth, like the Shire, various Elf strongholds, and even Rohan, so I tend to think of it as a beautiful world with this one corner that hosts a growing cancer.  But if you look at a map, that's not true at all.  Huge swathes of this world have already been blasted into scarred sterility by the previous wars of Sauron (Sauronic Wars?) -- there's the lost realm of Arnor, the Withered Heath, the Barrow-Downs and areas around Weathertop.  This world seems to be only about half inhabited, with an awful lot of empty wilderness where no one lives any more.  The Elves are leaving, but the Men aren't doing so well either; they too have been diminishing for a long time.  Instead, goblins are bursting out all over the place.

I'm very fond of the Rohirrim, Saxon/Vikings of the plains as they are.  They're on land, so they don't have ships but horses, and they make a religion of it.  These are people who would write epic poems just like Beowulf.  I bet Tolkien had a lovely time with them.

I like how Faramir shows up and is the only Man able to withstand the temptation of the Ring, and yet Tolkien doesn't make a big song and dance about it; he just slides it in there and leaves it for you to notice.  Even so, the Gondorians' insistence on following their customs exactly leads to trouble, as they force Frodo to lure Gollum in for capture.  Gollum is unable to understand that Frodo acts to save his life, and after that his budding possibility for redemption is squashed.  It seems that forcing people to do things isn't a good idea, even when it's for a good cause.

After I finished The Two Towers, I read the next part of DWJ's essay on "The Shape of the Narrative in Lord of the Rings."  It's very worth reading, and I've had a really nice time with it for an accompaniment.  And now I shall look forward to reading the final volume!




Monday, April 24, 2017

Elizabeth Goudge Day: The Valley of Song

The Valley of Song, by Elizabeth Goudge

Lory's Elizabeth Goudge event is now something I look forward to a lot.  This year, I splurged a little bit and bought two (used) books I've never read, but I am still saving those for later; I also got The Valley of Song through ILL.  It's a strange and charming story; a children's fairytale, but a long and complex one that makes me think of....oh, At the Back of the North Wind, maybe.  Goudge mixes her Christian imagery and older mythology with happy abandon, like Lewis does in Narnia, but it's a very different feel, and her story is set maybe 250 years ago, in the late 18th century, I think.

My ILL cover -- charming
Tabitha, age 11, would always rather be outdoors exploring, or visiting her little town's shipyard, than anything else.  She has discovered a magical place she calls the Valley of Song, and when she takes her friend Job to see it, he is transformed from an elderly woodcarver into the boy he once was.  Together, they enter the Workshop, where everything is made before it appears in the world, and where they meet fantastic creatures, including the figures of the zodiac.  Job's special place has trees, but when Tabitha brings other people, they each have their own zodiacal sponsor and special place in the Workshop too.  All of them are needed to build a beautiful ship from an abandoned shell, which will belong to the people of the town.

It's an unusual story, that's for sure, combining a fantasy tour of all creation, a love of one particular English village, and a deep belief in the possibility of redemption for everyone, no matter how lost they feel.   I really liked it, and now I have to give it back tomorrow, but maybe someday I can find a copy to own.  It would be worth having.




Friday, April 21, 2017

See you later....

I've been quite pleased with my two-week streak of posting (with time off for Sunday).  And I still have more books to write about; there are six on my desk at this moment.  But I'm going away for the weekend, on my own little adventure all by myself!  I always love to go to Cal Day, when UC Berkeley opens up the campus and there are lots of fun events.  And this time I'll go to some things for adults!  I'm excited, so maybe I'll post a picture or two when I come home.

Two years ago!

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Where Nothing is Long Ago

Where Nothing is Long Ago: Memories of a Mormon Childhood, by Virginia Sorensen

This lovely childhood memoir by a Newbery-winning author evokes a subculture that is now as foreign and puzzling as almost any you can think of.  Virginia Sorensen writes about life in a Utah farming town with strong Danish roots, and it seems to cover approximately 1917-1924 or so.  And she really knows how to start a story...

Virginia is about nine, playing in the hot summer weather, when Brother Tolsen comes running over, having just killed his neighbor during a dispute; the neighbor had twice blocked Tolsen's water in order to take it himself.  In the dry Utah climate, water for irrigation was of the first importance, and access to streams was carefully scheduled so that everyone would get a fair share.  Water-stealing was a terrible crime, and the entire community agreed that Brother Tolsen had acted in the defense of his family and livelihood.  They were relieved when the court case was decided in his favor, and felt sorry for the dead man's wife, because who could believe that her own husband could be a water-stealer?

I already knew about the irrigation system and how water-stealing was seen, and I was still stunned by this story.  There is quite a lot of culture here that readers may find a little difficult to grasp.

Sorensen goes on in a more moderate vein, describing a loving family (with its own complexities) and a nearly idyllic country setting where children could venture out and play unsupervised.  The stories are enchanting, as with her adoration of her kitten--Jiggs is one of the main characters--or funny, as with her love of going to funerals.  Others are painful; her beloved grandfather falls in love with a younger woman and is never welcome again.  She is terrified by a Peeping Tom.  And finally, as she gets older, there's a little bit of romance.

It's a wonderfully evocative memoir of a childhood, a time, and a culture that are now vanished.  It's probably difficult to get a copy of this book, though; mine is a loan, an ex-library copy from the early 1960s and I couldn't even find an image of it on the net.  It would be sad if it disappeared, but maybe ebooks will save it someday.


Wednesday, April 19, 2017

All Natural

All Natural: A Skeptic's Quest to Discover if the Natural Approach to Diet, Childbirth, Healing, and the Environment Really Keeps Us Healthier and Happier, by Nathanael Johnson

Nathanael Johnson is a child of serious hippies, and grew up eating dirt and berries in the Northern California mountains, not too far from where I live now.  His dad didn't believe in diapers, and his mom didn't believe in sugar.*  Then he grew up and married a woman of the modern world, and pretty soon they were wondering: what really is the best way to have a baby?  Doula and water-birth, or epidural and hospital bed?  Thus a book was born as Johnson explored our ideas about so many topics from birth to how to take care of the environment, not to mention 'toxins' in our food and vaccines.

I had quite a lot of fun reading all of this, and some of the topics he investigates are on the unusual side.  One whole section was devoted to the arguments over raw milk; another was about vegetable toxins with a fascinating aside into diseases caused by long-term exposure to some foods (not processed foods, just certain plants).  I learned a whole lot about modern pig farming, which has changed completely in the last 20 years, and some good information on modern medicine.

I particularly enjoyed a section on forest recovery in Northern California.  In the 19th century, mining companies engaged in hydraulic mining, in which they simply washed entire mountainsides downstream through sluices to get gold or other metals out of the soil.  It took concerted efforts to get the practice outlawed.  Johnson writes about some areas that are recovering, and how interested people can best manage local lands.  Not every place can recover, though; this is what one mountainside near a favorite hiking spot looks like today.  You can see that the entire thing was just washed down to bedrock and there's no way for new soil to form:

Photo credit: Kevin Knauss
This was a fun and informative book that covers a lot of topics, not too deeply but enough for introductory purposes.  It's worth a read.



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*Although my own hippie parents were a good deal more moderate, I completely understood Johnson's childhood longing for Twinkies and would like to invite him to the Facebook "Your Mom is So Berkeley" group, where he will feel right at home.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Two 'Miss Read' Novels

Storm in the Village
Farther Afield, by Miss Read

If you are feeling beset by the world and need a quiet refuge, Miss Read novels are hard to beat.  They're mid-century stories about a set of tiny English villages, narrated by 'Miss Read,' a teacher at the village school.  I read two a little while ago, and have two more waiting for the mood to strike one of these days.

Storm in the Village is the third Fairacre novel, and the (somewhat) peaceful village's life is threatened to be turned upside down if the government forces a local farmer to sell his fields for building a large settlement for power plant workers.  It would be larger than the village, so would children go to the school, or would the school close?  Bring business in, or just an awful lot of traffic?  Mr. Miller vows he'll die before he gives up his best land, and meanwhile there's other drama: a neglected boy runs away from home, and a junior teacher is dead set on ruining her life by falling for a scoundrel....

Farther Afield happens much later on (it's #11).  Miss Read is looking forward to a long summer holiday, but the first thing she does is to break her arm.  Her good friend Amy comes to the rescue with a holiday in Crete, but the reasons for it are not all good; Amy's husband is infatuated with a young secretary.  Miss Read and Amy argue the pros and cons of married and single life while enjoying the sunshine.  It's not so much of a comfort read, but it's certainly interesting!

Monday, April 17, 2017

The First Wife

The First Wife: A Tale of Polygamy, by Paulina Chiziane

I was intrigued as soon as I saw this novel.  It's the first published by a Mozambican woman, it's about polygamy, plus it's square, which is fun.  So here we go.

Rami, the narrator, has been married for twenty years, and to a prominent man -- her husband Tony is the chief of police, so they should have plenty for their needs.  But Tony is not around all that much.  Rami finds out that he has another family; in fact he has four mistresses, and most of them have several children.  Rami alternates between rage and hurt, but as she gets to know the other women, they realize that together they might be able to make Tony live up to his obligations.  They maneuver Tony into a polygamous marriage and start to demand their rights, but it's not a straightforward business.

Everything is told from Rami's point of view, and it's kind of stream-of-consciousness.  Rami has a tendency to discourse on the nature of men, women, or love, or anything else, and her moods change often; one minute she's pining for Tony, the next she's raging, so the reader is drawn deeply into her feelings.  She becomes very close with the other wives.  They strengthen and help each other, and resent each other too.  Much is made of the cultural differences between northern and southern women (and men).  The whole becomes an exploration of the difficulties between men and women, the possibly unbridgeable gap between their thoughts and goals, and the promises made and broken.  This is not a novel that offers a lot of hope in the project of marriage.

It's an engrossing, eventful novel with lots of drama, and at the same time, Rami's thoughts make for a repetitious background that may either irritate or provide deeper feeling to the reader. 

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Jill the Reckless

Jill the Reckless, by P. G. Wodehouse

I was in the mood for a nice escape, so I picked up my tablet and opened up a Wodehouse novel I'd never heard of before in the Kindle app.  A lot of early Wodehouses are now available for free, being out of copyright.  Jill the Reckless was published in 1920 as a serial -- after Psmith and Blandings Castle, but before Bertie and Jeeves really got going.

This cover is terrible.  Jill looks like a Gashlycrumb Tiny.
Jill is one lucky girl, being lovely, wealthy, and engaged to the broodingly handsome MP Sir Derek.  A series of misfortunes renders her penniless and single, and she ends up in New York working as a chorus girl, having one adventure after another.  There is a parrot, of course, an overbearing mother, a grifter uncle, and an upper-class twit or two.  It is all great fun.

Jill is a wonderful heroine and the story is gripping.  This has turned out to be one of my favorite Wodehouse novels! I just loved it, and I recommend it highly.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Imago

Imago, by Octavia E. Butler

I have now finished the Xenogenesis trilogy, and boy, it's a good read.  It's not hard SF, where you're mostly reading about future technologies and possibilities; this is the kind where a morality problem is set and explored from many sides.

Jodahs is the narrator for this third book, and it is something new again.  It accidentally develops into an ooloi, the third Oankali sex, a specialist in genetic manipulation without which reproduction cannot occur.  The Oankali survive by collecting and using all sorts of DNA, always changing into something a bit different.  But they didn't mean to have a hybrid ooloi so soon in the program, and Jodahs may not be allowed to stay on Earth at all.  Jodahs is desperate to stay and starts wandering too far from home.

There's a lot of really uncomfortable stuff in this book.  Lilith, in the first story, is fully human and embodies our viewpoint when faced with these aliens who do horrifying things to humans without permission, on the grounds that it is moral and necessary.  Lilith is not given a choice about becoming the mother of a bunch of hybrid children, and although she comes to understand the Oankali viewpoint, she never really accepts it and feels culpable for the things she has done.  Her son Akin is able to convince the Oankali to allow a 100% human colony on Mars against their inclination; Oankali morality says that humans should not be allowed to have children because they will eventually self-destruct in violence as a species.  Finally, Jodahs embodies the Oankali viewpoint most and explains it, but in my view he is never really able to make it acceptable to humans.  Too much of what the Oankali do violates human agency and denies choice.  The result, however, is an excellent exploration of choice and consent.

Previous posts on Xenogenesis:   Dawn and Adulthood Rites

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Excellent Sheep

Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, by
William Deresiewicz

Several years ago, William Deresiewicz published an online essay, The Disadvantages of an Elite Education, which garnered a lot of attention.  He then turned the essay into a book which I've been meaning to read for some time.

Deresiewicz, a Yale professor, starts off critiquing the ever-more-strenuous race to get into the Ivy League (or even a highly-ranked public school, but mostly the Ivies), and then the conformity seen on campus.  Perfect Ivy candidates do not have time for eccentricity; they have to fit a mold.  I think this is the strongest part of the book, with some excellent points about why we have this system and how it serves the people who benefit, but nobody else.

He then starts asking what college is actually for and what 'leadership' is really about.  There is some good stuff in there, but I did feel like it got kind of repetitive or something; I didn't feel like it was as strong.  There's a lot on what constitutes a meaningful life that really didn't feel terribly relevant, at least to me, so maybe that was it.  

Further on, Deresiewicz talks a lot about how our class divides are growing, partly because of this emphasis on elite education.  The Ivies serve the rich; hardly anyone else can afford the massive investment involved in producing an Ivy candidate.  Very few regular non-rich students get in.  Graduates then tend to hire each other into positions of power, because as we all know, an Ivy League education is the best.  The result is a self-perpetuating elite class that only rarely allows others in.

Since this book was published, I am hearing a little more buzz about Ivies looking for non-rich kids who have to get jobs.  But on the whole, the Ivies don't exist to serve the American people and never have.  So why do we assume that only Ivy graduates are qualified to wield power?

It's a pretty interesting read, with some bits I found trite, but overall it's got some good points.

Here's a bit from the article that also appears in the book, to give you an idea:
Elite schools pride themselves on their diversity, but that diversity is almost entirely a matter of ethnicity and race. With respect to class, these schools are largely—indeed increasingly—homogeneous. Visit any elite campus in our great nation and you can thrill to the heartwarming spectacle of the children of white businesspeople and professionals studying and playing alongside the children of black, Asian, and Latino businesspeople and professionals. At the same time, because these schools tend to cultivate liberal attitudes, they leave their students in the paradoxical position of wanting to advocate on behalf of the working class while being unable to hold a simple conversation with anyone in it...
But it isn’t just a matter of class. My education taught me to believe that people who didn’t go to an Ivy League or equivalent school weren’t worth talking to, regardless of their class. I was given the unmistakable message that such people were beneath me. We were “the best and the brightest,” as these places love to say, and everyone else was, well, something else: less good, less bright. I learned to give that little nod of understanding, that slightly sympathetic “Oh,” when people told me they went to a less prestigious college....I never learned that there are smart people who don’t go to elite colleges, often precisely for reasons of class. I never learned that there are smart people who don’t go to college at all.
I'm not actually sure how seriously to take that last bit, as it seems to me impossible to get through life without finding out that there are an awful lot of brilliant people who didn't go to Yale or even Chico State.  Is it possible to live so securely in the ivory tower?  I don't see how.