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Unfinished Tales

Wednesday, June 15th, 2011
Christopher Tolkien

Until the publication of The Children of Hurin a few years ago, Unfinished Tales was the third piece of the Middle-earth trilogy. Paired with The Lord of The Rings and The Silmarillion [] it was a bit of a third wheel; comprised of various stories in different states of completeness with some editorial comments by Christopher Tolkien needed to bridge the gaps and contradictions left by the myriad versions Tolkien authored of most of these stories.

Unfinished Tales actually includes my favorite of all of Tolkien’s writing. What I consider the be the best high fantasy ever: “Of Tuor and his Coming to Gondolin”. Versions of this story date back as far as 1911 and it is the birth of Middle Earth. It is an ultimate tragedy that Tolkien never finished the tale – “Of Tuor and The Fall of Gondolin” – to his satisfaction. I wish Christopher Tolkien could piece together a completed tale as he did with The Children of Hurin expanding the story in Unfinished Tales of “Narn i Hîn Húrin (The Tale of the Children of Húrin)” a related story to Tuor’s.

If you enjoy the window into Tolkien’s mind and the development of the Middle-earth “legendarium”. Then you can dive off the cliff into the massive 12 volume History of Middle Earth that Christopher Tolkien published in the late ’80s and early ’90s. An impressive read which I should attempt again as I’ve forgotten more of it than I remember.

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The Hamlet

Monday, November 15th, 2010
William Faulkner

I enjoyed The Hamlet more than The Sound and The Fury. Fury just required too much work on the readers part. The story was brilliant but the payoff was not worth the work over all. The Hamlet, while still requiring some work on the readers part to dive past the colloquial language of the dialog, appreciate the setting and, to some extent, deal with the modernist [] style elements.

The Hamlet is about the invasion of a small mythical southern every-town; Frenchman’s Bend, by the Snopes family. Detailing a number of Snopes’ and their eccentricities while relying on the non-Snopes character of Ratliff to provide grounded commentary and continuity. The Hamlet is mostly a comic novel, in places laugh-out-loud funny, set against the not so funny experience of life in the post reconstruction South.

I think that, like most of Faulkner‘s [] books the Americana is more than a surface veneer. I don’t find Faulkner’s stories to be timeless, place-less classics. Rather they are a specific meditation on the times and situations of the post-reconstruction American South. I have a hard time imagining how anyone who has lived their entire life in New York City could come close to appreciating Faulkner’s writing, much less how someone from another country could appreciate them in any great depth. The fact that the books do sell and are liked by people from outside the South amazes me. But they are, and Falkner did win the Nobel Prize for Literature. So…

I have two tenuous connections to Faulkner’s South, one general and the other specific. Generally, I grow up in rural Virginia, the South lite, and spent time in my grandparents house in Alabama, the South by any measure. This helped me to penetrate the language of The Hamlet enough to allow me to read the book in a fluid, natural way without struggling over the language used by the characters, making back and forth dialog enjoyable (as opposed to the Sisyphean effort require to digest the dialog in Ulysses [].) More specifically, I grew up in Charlottesville, home to UVA where Faulkner was “Writer in Residence” twice in 1957 and 1958. How I managed to read so little Faulkner in school (just The Bear short story to my recollection) is a mystery to me.

Interestingly, and perhaps contrary to what I say above, my post-high-school re-introduction to Faulkner came in the form of a friend who grew up in New York City. After moving to C’ville and living in a ‘house-too-far-back-in-the-woods’, in his own words, he moved downtown (such as it is) and became obsessed for a time with reading about the old South. Faulkner was his main source. It did nothing to dispel his fears of being molested in the woods by some Deliverance-esque hicks. Despite confirming his worst fears about the nature of southerners, my friend enjoyed Faulkner immensely enough that his recommendation put Faulkner on my list of to-reads. It only took me 11 years to get around to reading any.

Don Quixote

Wednesday, May 12th, 2010
Miguel de Cervantes
Edith Grossman

Don Quixote. Yea. Don Quixote. It’s been on the reading list a long time. But not always. Despite how famous Don Quixote is — a pillar of western literature and the first modern novel — I kept putting off reading it. I think it was because I had to read a part of it in Spanish when I was in school. And Spanish class was like a little taste of hell in the purgatory of high school.

Don Quixote reentered my sphere of consciousness in 2005, on the 500th anniversary of it’s publication. It took a few more years for me to get around to buying it in 2007. Then it sat around for over a year, staring at me every time I walked by the bookshelf. Then, once I did get started, I was reading it for almost two years. I started reading it in 2008 when I took time off for my daughters birth. And I just finished the last 200 pages on a 30 hour air trip to the US. I wonder how long it would have been if I didn’t have to make such a long trip?

I enjoyed Don Quixote despite the long struggle to actually get it read. Don Quixote and Sanho Panza, is squire are memorable characters. Over all the story is good, it’s just not something I can read quickly, at least not if I want to actually understand what it is I’m reading. The language doesn’t flow, I suspect a lot of that has to do with being translated and written in a colloquial form from a time half a millennium ago. There were a lot of footnotes about changing meanings and wordplay in the original that doesn’t translate.

On thing that put me off early on in reading was the windmill scene. Everybody knows about the windmills; it’s the first thing that comes to mind when I think of Don Quixote. But then, the whole episode is about a page, and it’s really early on in the story. It’s like the having the climax of the novel at the beginning of the story.

But after a long struggle to get through the later half of the first part the story picked up again. The second part, where Don Quixote‘s fame becomes the main foil, as people start to play with is madness and Sancho’s gullibility, was more fun to read than most of the first part. If Cervantes was prompted into writing the second part because of the less-than-good “false Quixote” that someone else published after the first part proved successful, then the author of the false Quixote did the world a favor. I doubt Don Quixote would be half as famous if it stopped at the end of the second sally. The third sally, which comprises the second part, is the best. Except for maybe the windmills.

The Sun Also Rises

Wednesday, January 14th, 2009
Ernest Hemingway

The Sun Also Rises

I enjoyed The Sun Also Rises but I can’t really can’t point to any one feature of the book that made it outstanding. It’s more of a gestalt feeling that raises The Sun Also Rises above any number of other books with similar stories to tell. The book is well written and justly famous for Ernest Hemingway’s clear and concise prose. The greatness of the plot is harder to pin down.

I think the most important characteristic of The Sun Also Rises is empathy. I was drawn in because I found myself empathizing with the characters on two sides of the love triangle (more like a hexagon) that is at the center of the book. I have, at various times, played the role of ‘best friend who will never be a lover’ and the lost puppy being lead around, ultimately to be left behind when something new comes along. All of the characters in the love triangle are archetypal caricatures that most of us can relate to, at least most of us who have felt the bitter sweetness of love.

I did notice that while The Sun Also Rises is famous for it’s depiction of bull fights and the running of the bulls in Pamplona these events are only briefly described and are almost not described. It reminds me of how famous the white whale of Moby Dick [] is despite the fact that the whale manages to appear on only a few pages of the novel.

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The Catcher in the Rye

Tuesday, November 18th, 2008
J. D. Salinger

The Catcher in the Rye

I think I missed the meaning of The Catcher in the Rye by about 15 years. While it was not a bad book, at 30 it was not a great book either. The whining, mad at the world, fuck off attitude of Holden would have fit better in my world view when I was a freshman or junior in high school.

How The Catcher in the Rye slipped through my reading list in high school is not something I can comment on. We should have read this book, assuming it was not banned for using naughty words. Maybe the teachers thought it would make us more rebellious.

Anyway, Catcher is a coming of age book, and I think (looking back from closer to mid-life crisis) it is good at being a coming of age book. Too bad I did not read it when I was that age.

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