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15 December 2012

'The Hobbit' by J.R.R. Tolkien

"My kind of hero"

What great fun this book is.  'The Hobbit' has a fantastic sense of adventure.  Some of it is tongue in cheek and obviously amused the author.  Lucky it amused the reader too.  Much has been written about this book and I have avoided reading most of it.  I so like it, just as it is.  I think Tolkien would prefer people to appreciate his hobbits and their friends based on their own merits and not judged by what came 30 years later.  As sequels go, 'The Lord of the Rings' is not only separated by time (as we usually view it) but by 30 years of study.  And not just any student, but an Oxford scholar.  Most of us do not want to think that a man may well mature, learn and grow a life time's worth in only 30 years.  'The Hobbit' is written by a man who had, still, a young man's sense of adventure and young children at home to admire it, even if they did not go far physically.  A dragon at the Bottom of the Garden can be just as scary as the dragon of the Lonely Mountain.

What I especially like about this tale of adventure is that humans, elves, dwarves, and hobbits all have good and bad qualities, sometimes in equal measure.  No square jawed, noble hero to guide and protect here.  It is the actions of the characters that define good or bad... the lessons learnt.  This being a tale of dragon and treasure, greed is an important theme.  The elves themselves are not above greed.  Bilbo, our unlikely hero (burglar), is a little wiser than even he would acknowledge about himself.  What I mean is that he does not long linger on bad deeds or dark thoughts.  I can see here the inner strength that Gandalf so admires.  I feel that hobbits have an inner cup that tells them how much is their true measure out in the world.  Bilbo seems to understand what his share is in this world and not just in treasure.  He listens to this inner voice and ultimately avoids the temptation of dragon treasure.

It is not a bad thing to make mistakes, to have suspicions or even to be greedy.  It is not evil to fall into sin.  It is evil to stay there.  Bilbo Baggins picks himself out of these moments and lifts his companions out as well.  My kind of hero.

J.R.R. Tolkien
ISBN: 9780345339683

08 December 2012

To Fiction or Not to Fiction

"If the eyes are the windows to the soul then fiction helps us interpret what we see there"

 I have several friends who work.  They take the time to read in their free time, though not exclusively. Some of these friends love to read fiction. What I don't understand and my friends either, is why they have had to defend their choice of books. In other words, they have been told that fiction is a waste of time, it is escapist and does not contribute to mind, society or family. That's an interesting point of view and I am not making it up.  In one case it was a colleague/friend and in another it was a close relative. My friends read for professional purposes; so they do not neglect one for the other, nevertheless, they have been told  that reading fiction is wasteful and jejune. Moreover there is the implied slight to house wives that they have the time to read fiction, but not working women.  As if housewives sat all day doing their nails, but that essay is for another blog.  So how to reply to the Non-Fiction Union?

I read fiction and non fiction. I read almost every genre except for romance because the writing is often too predictable. To me the magic of fiction is that fiction gives the opportunity to take all these non fiction theories, ideas or studies to their logical and sometimes crazy conclusions. That goes for all non fiction topics; law, every branch of science, politics, history, archaeology, etc...

Have you read 'Brave New World', 'Fahrenheit 451', '1984', 'Never Let me Go'? All fiction about the future. Terrifying and some of the stuff in those books has already become true. But fiction does not have to be depressing either. Fiction teaches us about ourselves by mirroring our inner selves. Non-fiction can describe action, reaction and consequences. Non-fiction can try to interpret from observation, situations like a war or a legal process but non-fiction cannot venture inside the heart. Fiction puts soul back into science.

A book like 'The Secret Garden' about children and for children is lovely in that it shows children in vulnerable positions.  To overcome this vulnerability it validates children's strength, independence... power. The book talks to children about fears that they experience even if these fears are not part of their individual realities. The fear of abandonment, death, rejection, illness and otherness are addressed. A child may live in a comfortable home with loving parents and still have these fears. People who champion non fiction forget that most of our lives are in fact lived inside our own heads. Perhaps I could go the way of philosophy and argue that the lives we think we lead are fiction.  Good fictional literature addresses  these fears in a safe, cathartic environment, or not, depends on the point of the book... I mean 'The Silence of the Lambs' is fantastic but not the kind of fear I had ever entertained.

Fiction also entertains. Entertainment is important for our mental and physical health.  In the end of ends, one person who does not enjoy reading fiction does not negate the value of fiction for others. I do not enjoy golf. I have tried it and came away with many intense headaches. Gazing into the blinding distance in the sun for several hours is not my kind of activity, but others are welcome to enjoy it. Many husbands who do not read, do play golf for many hours each weekend, instead of spending time with their loving wives...

If the eyes are the windows to the soul then fiction helps us interpret what we see there. Charles Dickens changed the attitudes of an entire society about poverty and children in particular. He did not like what he saw in the eyes of the workhouse children.  His works of fiction reshaped attitudes and planted the seeds of social conscience that grew along side the industrial revolution and expanded in the 20th and 21st centuries. Religion did not accomplish this and scientific books recording the plight of the poor, of which there were many in the same years, did not accomplish this either. Imagination and creativity spoke to the hearts and minds of people.

Before there were enough literate people to give books the direct power they now have there were oral stories. Many of these were indeed fiction. Someone made them up to explain, defend or entertain and then passed them on to a new generation to retell. The human mind developed the ability to exists in different worlds (some call it imaginary) even if these different worlds were in the next valley over. Some of these modern worlds include the office, the supermarket, the nursery and the in law's home. Other worlds include Middle Earth and Pemberly, or heaven save me, the world of 'Never Let Me Go', so close to our own I can almost touch it and it is not a pleasant experience. To exist in different worlds is to expand the mind. Non fiction does this as well, but not in the same direction and not to the same depth. Non fiction draws a picture, fiction gives it color, depth and emotion.  

04 December 2012

'The Father Christmas Letters' by J.R.R. Tolkien

" To write your letter to Santa is important, but to receive a reply..."

I received this lovely book several years ago as a Christmas gift.  I was in my Tolkien mania and BPR would buy me any Tolkien stories he could find.  Yes, he is a sweetheart...not allowed to called him Honey, though.  The book includes most of the letters received by the Tolkien children over 20 years.  Tolkien had four children, three boys and a girl.  He obviously loved them very much.  Sweeter proof cannot be found than these letters from Father Christmas.

Tolkien wrote in various scripts and even invented languages, for which he is famous, to his children in the name of Father Christmas.  I can almost see the excitement in their home.  To write your letter to Santa is important, but to receive a reply, is better than most gifts.  The letters are humorously decorated with pictures that depict the adventures in the letters.  It is a lovely detail, as Father Christmas notes in one of his letters, not all of the children in the house could read yet.

My children were still young enough to enjoy being read to back then and that Christmas I read them this short collection of letters.  We still pick up the book around this time of year, place it on the coffee table and page through it with something festive to drink.  Polar Bear is still the favorite character, what a master of mayhem.  Father Christmas sometimes sounds a little too wise and Polar Bear keeps him young, I suspect.  The letters include the topics that Tolkien enjoyed, calligraphy, invented languages as well as story telling with elves, goblins and snowmen.  They are intimate at the same time.  He wrote them for special children.  The love shines through.

J.R.R. Tolkien
ISBN: 9780261102552

01 December 2012

'Sea of Ghosts' By Alan Campbell

Fantasy books entertain me.  I enjoy them, deep or shallow.  I am often satisfied when there is a new twist to magic or an addition to dragon lore.  This book, though, holds several surprises.  The poisonous, ever rising seas and the nature of its poison is fascinating.  It mirrors our own dirty rising seas but this fantasy ocean has the good grace of being polluted by none humans.  The mystery and the tragedy of the drowned still haunts me.  The drowned (as the creatures who exist in the poisonous seas are called) become a character, a force in themselves and have the potential to be the danger or the salvation no one sees coming.  Campbell's world is unique and interesting.  All his details fit neatly together and it is obvious that his back story is well thought out in order to give his book depth.

The story is complex, but told in such a way that I want to stop and enjoy the scenery.  I want to know more about every detail.  There are magical books I want to explore, sources of strange magic, enslaved addicted dragons, different races, cruel telepathic women (this theme is the exception to the joys of this book, it is getting old) and obviously soldiers in vain, wasteful wars where our hero learns his martial skills.  The main protagonist, Thomas Granger, is refreshing in being ugly and pragmatic with firm principals. Thomas Granger is a balanced man in a cruel, corrupt world.  He is not moral per se; he will steal if that is what he needs to do.  By balanced I mean a man who's strengths and weaknesses are not always on hand to the reader or to himself.  Nevertheless, he is on the look out for his own weaknesses and hopeful in his search for strengths; such a man is Thomas Granger.  He is a great deal of fun to read.

The end of the book was satisfying and a cliff hanger at the same time.  This is important since the full title of the book includes the words 'The Gravedigger Chronicles'; so this is book one. I am tired of picking up trilogies and chronicles that a good editor could have turned into one or two good books.  Campbell made a compromise.  I am glad and will try to find the next book.  I like Thomas.

Alan Campbell
ISBN: 9780330508780