The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien

As we’re trying to think ahead to the future of a small space, I’m combing through all of our books (of which there are many) and reading as many of them as I can rather than branching out too much right now.  It’s possible that many of my little literary friends, which have for so long sat and watched from a shelf will be stored in a box for four years, and so I’m going to give as many of them as I can one last good read (or, in some cases, a first good read) before packing them away for the forseeable future.  Gosh — Debbie Downer all of a sudden.

I feel like I read The Hobbit at some point in my young life.  I feel like it, but now having read it either again or for the first time, I’m not sure I ever did.  Perhaps my maternal unit will read this post and can let me know if we ever actually read it together — we read books together at bedtime until I was in late middle school.  It was the best way to end the day — me and Mom, squashed together on my little twin bed, taking turns reading chapters of Lizard Music or maybe Buffalo Brenda.  Patrick and Drew and I end each day the same way now, and it’s so fun — books and bedtime just go together.

I knew the story — well, at least the basics.  I VIVIDLY remember the amazing adaptation at the Children’s Theater in MN when I was younger.  Smaug took up half the stage, but it was so dark, he was only a shimmering outline of jewels.  And I remembered the dwarves and all their wonderful rhyming names.  But as I read it, there were so many parts to the story that I feel certain I would have remembered if I had read it before.  Beorn?  How could I have forgotten a character like Beorn?

I do love Tolkien’s way of understated drama, making it seem only as treacherous as you, the reader, are willing to make it in your own imagination.  He has a gift for touching scenes of brevity as well.  When Bilbo and Thorin speak for the last time, it did tear me up a bit — he’s got a knack for really making you feel the sorrow in a moment with very few words.  I read back over the section a few times, but couldn’t really pinpoint exactly what he said that made me so emotional — it was just there somehow, in the words.

Whether a read or a reread, I really enjoyed it.  At this stressful time, when so many things are changing for us (albeit for the positive!), it was soothing to read just a chapter a night — just like with Mom — and think about Bilbo and his adventure that was only an adventure after it was finished.  So much more calming to think about someone else’s difficulties and tribulations than to consider your own right before sleep. And I do love the hobbits.  Their world view is one to strive for.

And who can possibly wait until December for the movie?!?  Martin Freeman?  Yes!  Ian McKellan, back again?  Double yes!

And of course!  I did remember the trolls!

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The Magician King by Lev Grossman

I read the first in this series, The Magicians, over Christmas break 2010.  It was a relatively cool book, especially considering all of the weird things I had heard about it before I read it.  All sorts of readers on Good Reads kept saying meaningless comparisons like, “It’s Harry Potter for adults” or “Harry Potter for the Hipster crowd!”  Being only Hipster-sensitive and not myself a hipster, I didn’t know exactly what to make of that.  Turns out what that meant was that The Magicians was a book about high school graduates who are invited to a private school to learn magic.  Honestly, that seems to be where the comparisons end.

The Magician King, the sequel, was also better than I expected.  At the end of the first book, I was unsure of where the story could go, or if it could even continue.  The answer?  It’s got places to go, new magical mysteries to uncover, and yes, it’s able to continue.  New characters were introduced that I ended up caring about.  New magical places were explored that I had not heard about in the other book.  Old ideas were dredged up again for another going-over, but new ideas were also brought to light.  The ending of this book was in some ways more satisfying than the first book — I feel more compelled to continue reading — but it also feels odd.  I’m not sure exactly how to feel about my main character at the end.  Is he really the martyr I think the author wants me to see?  Or is Quentin (the main character) just at another weird crossroads but somehow has found his “bliss,” something he’s never been remotely close to before?

It probably feels like I’m not actually saying much about this book. I’m trying to explain my thoughts about it without totally blowing the plot for you, in case you’re interested in reading it.  But now, looking at what I’ve written so far, it’s difficult to get what I’m talking about.  I’ll say this: if you read the first book, it’s worth reading the second.  If you haven’t read the first book, but you like fantasy novels with realistic touches, check it out.

I do enjoy the realistic world Grossman has created.  It’s not like Harry Potter — nothing is safe, or out of bounds, or unimaginable.  Evil is truly scary, not referred to like the Boogieman.  And I think one aspect of his realism is how he treats magic in these books — as just another talent that some people have.  I see others on Good Reads complaining about how nonchalant Quentin (who is our main Magician, and our Magician King in this second book) is about magic.  But wouldn’t you be, after awhile?  We like to think that magic is special, and exciting, etc. etc.  But if it was actually something you could do, the simple stuff would lose its charm eventually.  (punny!)  So it seems only realistic to me that Quentin would sometimes be a little bored, even though we, the unmagic types, find everything he does exceptional.  I like that Grossman doesn’t seem worried about creating a world where magic exists and we find it “magical” — in his world, magic just exists, like how religion exists.  Some people are really into it — other folks, it’s just something they do.

That’s not to say he doesn’t create some fantastical things.  I love the world of Fillory, and I find the Neitherworlds really interesting as an idea.  And, without giving too much away, the origin of magic as discussed in this book is really cool — good food for thought.  So haters can hate.  These books are enjoyable, and if you can’t get past Quentin’s ennui at times to enjoy the interesting paradoxical worlds Grossman has created, then just leave it.  Go back to your Hipster hating parties and leave poor Quentin alone.  Lord knows he’s got enough problems by the end of this book.

Also, on an ending note — I swear, I’m almost done with this weird and random review — I was not into Harry Potter or the Narnia books as a youngster.  I’ve read both, but as an adult, not at a more impressionable age.  But I would think that the Narnia fans would enjoy these books more than the Harry Potter crowd would.  Grossman is really creating an homage to Narnia in Fillory, but often ridicules the Harry Potter world with his own comparisons in this book.  Either way, he’s created something that deserves to be called its own — not only referred to by comparisons that don’t hold together well anyway.

His Majesty’s Dragon and Throne of Jade by Naomi Novik

Every summer deserves summer reads.  These two get my vote for the “summerest” of the reading I’ve done so far in 2011.  And, lest you think I’m being pretentious, this isn’t a bad thing.  In fact, at the beginning of the summer, freshly exhausted from the taxing end of year inventory checks, grade entering, and menial cleaning jobs that fill a teacher’s last days of the school year, all I’m looking for is a book where I won’t have to think much.

These delivered a respite from stress and heavy thought.  PERFECT.   A new series, optioned already for movies by Peter Jackson, about dragons during the Napoleonic Wars.  Drew is a Napoleonic war fiend, thanks to Patrick O’Brian and the Aubrey books, and he turned me on to this new, fanciful series.

Full disclosure– they are SUMMER READING.  There’s not much going on metaphorically or below the surface, but the main dragon in the story, Temeraire, is the sweetest character ever.  He is a dear, dear, dragon.  My favorite moment in the first book comes when Temeraire and his Captain, Laurence, are walking up a mountain.  At this point, Temeraire is only a few months old, and still small enough to go on hikes with Laurence.  (He gets much, much bigger.  Much.)  He becomes fascinated with a little shiny pebble on the hike, but it’s too small for him to pick up in his talons, so he gently pushes it up the hill with him so that Laurence can pick it up for him.  Sweet, sweet, dragon.

The historical parts of the books are fun, but a little odd.  Military leaders act in unusual ways, that work well with the plot points, but seem ill-befitting to a military force in the middle of a epic war.  Temeraire proves to be a valuable dragon in a fight, and yet in the second book, the Admiral lets the Chinese take him away, because…I’m not sure exactly.  Doesn’t sound like something many fighting forces would consider.   But, as with so many summer reads, suspending belief and criticism is important for enjoyment. Even though they are speculative historical fiction, they remind me a lot of the Arthurian books I used to devour — a slight nod to history, but changing whatever gets in the way of the narrative.

The relationship between Temeraire and Laurence is the reason to read the books.  Every kid wishes for some kind of fantastical pet, and although it is clear that the dragons aren’t pets in this world, I still can’t help but wish for a dragon of my own.  Temeraire is wholly devoted to Laurence, and Laurence sacrifices all normalcy from his life in order to serve his country with Temeraire.  The kind of commitment they feel for each other is touching and desirable for the kid in me who used to love fantasy books.

It reminded me a little bit of the Dealing With Dragons series by Patricia Wrede.  Those books were much more in the realm of fantasy, and contained no historical base at all, but they were so much fun.  I loved Princess Cimorene, who because bored with her princess life and abandoned it to become a cook for a dragon instead.  The cover of that first book left me daydreaming for hours — look at how defiant she looks, even in the face of a huge, monstrous dragon!  So many fantastic role models in young adult fiction…I have to reread that one.

After finishing the second Temeraire book, I was ready to jump into the third book, but took a small hiatus for some actual historical reading — no dragons in my book now.  But after I finish reading about the fatalistic, depressing events that led to World War One, I’ll be ready to get back to a world where dragons roam the air.

Among Others by Jo Walton

The cover...beautiful and perfect!

I am catching up slowly on my list of books that I wanted to post about while our internet was nonexistent.  Among Others — I read it almost two months ago now, but I knew I couldn’t skip it.  I first heard about Jo Walton from Nancy Pearl, of Pearl Picks — one of the best lists of reading material ever.  She is the only person I follow on Twitter — the Clark County library stopped posting her book lists, or she stopped writing them — I’m not sure which.  But on Twitter, she “tweets” about once a day about whatever book she’s currently reading.  By now, I’ve learned how to decipher her opinions into solid reading advice for me.  If she lists a book as “cerebral,” I will read 5 pages, and dump it.  If she lists a book as “delightful,” it’ll become a new favorite of mine.

Just like Among Others.  This book was full of “youthful charm” — a loaded phrase if ever I’ve seen one, but apt in this case.  The main character is a girl who has recently lost her twin in an accident involving their mother — very shady and only slowly revealed — who also talks to fairies and does magic.  Drew got to this book before I did, and I’m glad.  If I had read this book before him, I would have taken the magic and fairies at face value.  But my dashing husband asked me, when I was about a third of the way through the novel, whether I thought the magic was real or whether it was her way of coping with the death of her twin.  Even having finished the book, I’m still puzzling that one over.  Something to consider if you read it too.

The best part of this book was all the other books mentioned.  It’s been awhile since I’ve read a ton of fantasy, but the main character is steeped in science fiction, so I got a bazillion and one book recommendations from this novel.

I was mostly struck by the main character’s realism.  She’s an adolescent, straddling her magical childhood with her mother and sister, now entering adulthood at a boarding school with suspicious girls and a father and two aunts she’s never met.  She has trouble discerning between major and minor issues, like all adolescents, and deals with feelings of grief and love that, although mysteriously sheathed by the question of magic’s intrusion into her life, seem very honest.

The fairies in the book were not romanticised either -- refreshing from a book about magic.

A few of my favorite moments from the book — mostly just some random quotes from her diary that worked well for me:

~Interlibrary loans are a wonder of the world and a glory of civilization. Libraries really are wonderful.  They’re better than bookshops, even.  I mean bookshops make a profit on selling you books, but libraries just sit there lending you books quietly out of the goodness of their hearts.

(Resonation, anyone?  Yes, please!  I spent so many hours at the little Excelsior library, tucked behind the main street stores.  That library introduced me to so many different kinds of books, got me started on Arthurian legends, let me feel the satisfaction of walking up and down the same few shelves only to find a book you had never heard of before and have it become a best friend.  There is something really lovely about libraries, something that no other space can recreate.)

~I wonder what it’s like to have written your masterpiece, and to know you’ll never do it again?

(What some of us wouldn’t give to find out someday!)

~Things need to be worth doing for themselves, not just for practice for some future time.

~Which isn’t to say I think women should be stuck with childrearing, but — how interesting that what comes out as doing the best he could in a man looks like neglect in a woman.

But the closest quote to my own feeling, that sums up my thoughts about this book having just finished Anna Karenina…

~It’s cheering, especially after reading Chekhov yesterday.  I’m so glad I’m not Russian.

Ha!


American Gods by Neil Gaiman

Another book I judged rightly by its cover.

This doesn’t happen to me very often.  I started this book last year, two weeks before Patrick was born.  And, about two weeks ago now, I started it again and finished it.  Usually when I start a book and then have to stop reading it for whatever reason, I never get back to it.

But this time I really wanted to finish it.  Giving birth put a slight time-delay on it, but there was no stopping me.  I was going to read this book.

The premise was plenty to hook me.  The idea is that gods from all culture are created in our minds, and then manifested into real beings.  So, when people began coming to America, all the way back to folks crossing the land bridge, they brought their gods with them in their minds.  And the gods stayed.  Cool, huh?

I also find the Norse pantheon fascinating, and they are the focus of the book.  Such interesting stories full of darkness that could only be created by people who had to live in darkness themselves for a great part of the year.  Odin (in this book, called “Wednesday”) sacrificed one of his eyes to gain inner knowledge.  That’s dark.  Even darker is that he hanged himself on the “World Tree” to learn the secrets of runes.  Sacrifice is a big theme here.

Shadow, the main character, turns out to be...

Neil Gaiman’s style is perfectly matched to his characters in this book.  I read The Graveyard Book by him a few years back, and it is excellent.  American Gods is like The Graveyard Book for adults — much darker, more introspective, and more satisfying, too.  One reviewer called it “Wagnerian noir.”  Perfect.

I love Gaiman’s books for moments like this.  One character is telling our main man, Shadow, what she believes in: “I believe that candy really did taste better when I was a kid…that there’s a cat in a box somewhere who’s alive and dead at the same time (although if they don’t ever open the box to feed it it’ll eventually just be two different kinds of dead.”  Ha!  Anytime an author can use a Schrodinger’s Cat reference, I’m impressed.

But my favorite thing about this book is how easily Gaiman can pull the rug out from under you.  Some terrible people and gods exist in this world he’s created, but he “reports” it all poetically but calmly.  Never do I feel like he’s become emotionally overwrought by his character’s deeds.  This is how he’s always able to keep me from seeing a few pages ahead.  I’m an avid reader of mysteries, and you get a feel for what’s going to happen, who the archetypes are, etc.  But not with Gaiman.  When I began reading this book (both times!) I didn’t even think there would be any twists or changes.  I thought it was just going to be a cool, mythology-in-our-time book.  There was a lot more to it than that.  Like dead cat/live cat jokes.

They travel to Vegas in the book, to meet with a god whose name we never know and convince him to join their cause.  Here’s a taste of Gaiman’s insight and odd views:

There is a secret that the casinos possess, a secret they hold and guard and prize, the holiest of their mysteries.  For most people do not gamble to win money, after all, although that is what is advertised, sold, claimed, and dreamed.  But that is merely the easy lie that gets them through the enormous, ever-open, welcoming doors.

The secret is this: people gamble to lose money.  They come to the casinos for the moment in which they feel alive, to ride the spinning wheel and turn with the cards and lose themselves, with the coins, in the slots.  They may brag about the nights they won, the money they took from the casino, but they treasure, secretly treasure, the times they lost.  It’s a sacrifice, of sorts.

Making Vegas into a modern-day religious site.  A place where the people of America come because they know they will lose.  Next time you travel through a casino, look for that — it’s everywhere.  People just happy to be playing.  After all, what other possible explanation is there for coming back and back to Vegas even after you lose?  This is why I like Gaiman — I’d never thought about this before, but he’s found some truth here.

Ultimately, there’s a lot I’d like to say about this book that I can’t, because there’s lots of cover to be blown.  Rather than ruin anything for anyone, I’ll just say that I’m having a hard time doing this book justice.  This is one that will stay with me and make me wonder, as our world keeps evolving and changing, what kinds of gods are being created as we think.

*If you think you might like this book, but hesitate when I talk about how dark it is (and it is dark, believe me,) think about the book Runemarks by Joanne Harris.  It’s a similar book based on Norse mythology, but for young adults.  Loads of fun.

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