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Search tags: Planning-to-read-in-2014
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review 2015-01-05 15:57
The Silmarillion / J.R.R. Tolkien
The Silmarillion - J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien

J.R.R. Tolkien is best known for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings but those who thought these two wonderful adventures marked the height of his imagination have many more delights to come. The Silmarillion represents the source of Tolkien's later work and follows the events of the First Age of Middle Earth. For information, The Lord of the Rings concerns the end of the Third Age.

The Silmarillion is a gloriously realised story of rebellion, exile, war and the heroism of elves and men. But to gain an insight into the staggering complexity of Tolkien's world, however, the shorter works also included are must-reads. Dealing with the myth of creation, the nature of the Gods, the fall of Númenor and the Rings of Power, they paint a vivid picture not only of Middle Earth but also of the author's soaring imagination.

 

Reading this volume had the same feel for me as reading the Old Testament—it is the background material for a whole system of thought. I guess that reveals my religious leanings—Middle Earth is where I hope my spirit goes when I die. But seriously, reading this historical background document to Middle Earth reminded me very much of a summer when I was a teenager when I decided to read through the whole Bible, with the thought that if I could understand the whole thing I might find something in it that I could use. During both reading experiences, I learned a lot.

There were some significant aspects of The Silmarillion that were strongly reminiscent of the Old Testament, the creation story at the beginning the strongest of those. Finally, I was able to see why so many people see Tolkien as a religious writer. Both The Hobbit and LOTR have both seemed very non-religious to me, almost pagan, so I have always been confused by that view point. Now I can see that the underpinnings of Middle Earth are very much based in Christian theology.

It also answered many questions I had about Middle Earth: why is Elrond known as Half-Elven? What is the history between the Elves and the Dwarves? Why is Aragorn a Ranger when we first meet him? Who exactly is Gil-galad and why do the Elves sing of him? Who the heck is Elbereth?

This book is not for the casual reader—it is for the Middle Earth aficionado, the Elf obsessed, the Hobbitophile. I was all of the above when I tried to read it in my 20s and I still failed. Now, in my 50s, I have the patience and concentration to appreciate this interesting history and I very much enjoyed it.

 

Book number 156 of my reading project, the NPR list of classic science fiction and fantasy.

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review 2014-12-25 17:28
Dhalgren / Samuel Delaney
Dhalgren - Samuel R. Delany

A mysterious disaster has stricken the midwestern American city of Bellona, and its aftereffects are disturbing: a city block burns down and is intact a week later; clouds cover the sky for weeks, then part to reveal two moons; a week passes for one person when only a day passes for another. The catastrophe is confined to Bellona, and most of the inhabitants have fled. But others are drawn to the devastated city, among them the Kid, a white/American Indian man who can't remember his own name. The Kid is emblematic of those who live in the new Bellona, who are the young, the poor, the mad, the violent, the outcast--the marginalized.

 

Dhalgren is many things, but instantly accessible isn't one of them. While most of this big, ambitious, deeply detailed novel is beautifully pellucid, the opening pages will be difficult for some: the novel starts with the second half of an incomplete sentence, in the viewpoint of a man who doesn't know who he is. If you find the early pages rough going, push on; the story soon becomes clear and fascinating. But--fair warning--the central nature of the disaster, of its strange devastations and disruptions, remains a puzzle for many readers, sometimes after several readings.

 

There is a lot going on in this novel—lots of references to mythology, I think there are deliberate parallels to Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and a lot of exploration of what it means to be an artist and to live an artistic life.

Our unnamed protagonist begins the adventure when he encounters (and has sex with) a woman who turns into a tree, a dryad. It is she who ensures that he receives the chains that will mark him as special in the place where he is going. He is then picked up by a truck driver, who reminded me of the ferryman Charon who delivered souls to Hades in the Greek underworld. The truck driver stops, without a word, and the main character knows that he must get out and enter the city of Bellona, which has gone through some unnamed calamity and has become a literal Underworld. On his way in, he meets a group of women who are leaving and receives from them an orchid—not the flower, but a bladed weapon worn on the wrist. Between the chains and the orchid, he is marked as a person of consequence in this new, violent world that he is entering.

Most of the people of Bellona go by nicknames or aliases and the protagonist soon receives his—Kid/Kidd/the Kid. Delaney emphasizes that he is in his 30s, but looks like he is 16 or 17 and this appearance of youth is noted in his name. He soon becomes de facto leader of a group of Scorpions, a gang by any other measure. Kid is King Arthur to a dirty, scrofulous bunch of knights of the Round Table, or maybe Hrothgar to a shaggy, stinky bunch of Danes. But this is ironic, as they seem to suffer most from boredom—having nothing of any consequence to actually do. Violence is just a way to alleviate the tedium. (They refer to their house as a nest, perhaps a nod to Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land.)

The cover proclaims Dhalgren to be “The major novel of love and terror at the end of time.” I didn’t see it that way—rather there was a lot of sex and neurosis. It takes the sexual banner that Heinlein began championing in his fiction and extends it to the gay and bisexual communities. Kid’s triad with Denny (male) and Lanya (female) is central to the last half of the book—perhaps if King Arthur had crawled into bed with Lancelot and Gwenivere that myth could have had a happier ending? The sex scenes are very much like reading a porno magazine—catering only to the male gaze and often involving coercion or, at the very least, questionable consent.

Like Stephen Daedelus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Kid seems to be a stand-in for Delaney himself in Dhalgren. Wikipedia helpfully let me know that Delaney was ambidextrous and a bisexual who eventually identified himself as gay—characteristics of Kid. But the major issue that Delaney explores through Kid is the nature of the life of an author. Kid writes (or does he copy? It’s never made explicit) poetry and enjoys notoriety in Bellona society for this quirk. When his book of poetry is published, he titles it Brass Orchids (is this a play on the etymological meaning of orchid, which is testicle in Latin?), which one must have to survive the publishing world and/or Bellona. There is an especially interesting scene when, during the launch party for Kid’s book, another poet critiques his work harshly—not a safe course of action when Kid has his orchid and a loyal gang of Scorpions along with him. Lanya convinces him that the other guy is just jealous and that Kid should let go of the criticism rather than beating him senseless. Criticism is a part of being published, she tells him, and something that authors must learn to live with.

I am not a fan of modernist literature—I admit to preferring full sentences and more traditionally structured narrative. There is much more going on in this novel—I’ve only scratched the surface of all the complexities—and I could definitely appreciate Delaney’s talent at folding so many things into this almost-900 page novel. I’m sure that with study, I could write a dissertation on it. However, I didn’t enjoy the reading experience enough to re-read the book. I can appreciate why it is considered a ground-breaking work of science fiction while acknowledging that it will never be a favourite book of mine. 

 

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text 2014-12-08 22:02
Reading progress update: I've read 294 out of 879 pages.
Dhalgren - Samuel R. Delany

Wow, I am so out of practice with this semi-stream-of-consciousness stuff!  I'm finding this book tough sledding.

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text 2014-12-01 22:41
The Bean Trees / Barbara Kingsolver
The Bean Trees - Barbara Kingsolver

3 out of 5 stars

 

Meet Taylor Greer. Clear-eyed and spirited, she grew up poor in rural Kentucky with two goals: to avoid pregnancy and to get away. She succeeds on both counts when she buys a '55 Volkswagen and heads west. But by the time our plucky if unlikely heroine pulls up on the outskirts of Tucson, Arizona, at an auto repair shop called Jesus is Lord Used Tires that also happens to be a sanctuary for Central American refugees, she's "inherited" a three-year-old American Indian girl named Turtle. What follows -- as Taylor meets the human condition head-on -- is as the heart of this memorable novel about love and friendship, abandonment and belonging, and the discovery of surprising resources in apparently empty places. 

 

 

This is a character driven novel and if you don’t like the characters, I advise you to set it down, walk away, and read something else. If, however, you are willing to spend a while getting to know the two young women featured, I think you will enjoy The Bean Trees. This is not an action novel—it’s an exploration of the lives of two young women from disadvantaged homes and how they sort out their lives.

 

Who can’t appreciate the desire to get out of Dodge after graduation and see what else the world has to offer? Marietta re-names herself Taylor and truly starts over. She bravely starts out in a hunk-of-junk car and acquires a child along the way. LouAnn takes the more traditional route out—she gets married and moves with a husband, who proceeds to abandon his pregnant wife. But the two young women, from similar backgrounds, find one another and start building a firm friendship.

 

There is a study in contrasts—young women from poor families and illegal immigrants. Taylor, who has felt the weight of discrimination all of her life, is suddenly confronted with her white privilege. LouAnn, who has never felt worthy of anything, is changed by a job where her enthusiasm and hard work are recognized and rewarded. Instead of mooning around, hoping for a transformation of her absent husband, she finally takes charge of her life. Both of them learn new ways to cope with life’s problems and new ways to look at themselves.

 

These are issues that all young women face at some point in life (independence, marriage, careers, children, relations with parents)—how we each deal with them depend on the resources, both financial and friends/family, that we have available to us. I did find Taylor’s ready acceptance of the child, Turtle, to be less than believable. She had finished high school and I thought should have known better than to take off across country with someone else’s child, no matter how abused that child was. And I found the final solution to her legal position to be most unlikely.

 

The significance of the title, which refers to the Wisteria vine, gets rather slapped in your face at the end of the book. The scraggly, ugly vine which, after the life-giving rain, produces luxuriant foliage and beautiful flowers, just as the underprivileged, poor girls flower into a happier life with some kindness from others. Having said that, I loved Turtle’s obsession with plants—wanting to read the seed catalog rather than a story book—even though I can see exactly how it fit into this really obvious message.

 

Despite my perception of flaws, however, I found the book an enjoyable read. It made me appreciate my own age and station in life—I have said it before, I would never choose to be less than 40 again!

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text 2014-12-01 18:39
Master of the Vortex / E.E. "Doc" Smith
Master Of The Vortex - E. E. "Doc" Smith

3 out of 5 stars.

 

Runaway Vortex!  A churning nuclear fireball, appearing out of nowhere, bringing utter destruction--and countless numbers of them were menacing planets throughout the Galaxy!

"Storm" Cloud, nucleonic genius, set out in his spaceship Vortex Blaster to track and destroy the mysterious vortices--and embarked on a saga of adventure, discovery and conflict among the far stars that could have been told only by the incomparable "Doc" Smith.

 

Nice to read a novel set in the Lensmen universe, but not starring one of the Lensmen (although they still feature prominently in this tale). It was also interesting to note that computers make their first appearance in the series and that absolutely no one uses a slide rule in this book. In fact, Dr. Cloud is a human computing machine, performing feats of calculation unmatched by other mortals. He is partnered with Joan Jankowski because of her expertise with computers, which are improving but are still no match for Cloud’s brain.

 

In many ways, this book felt like an episode of Star Trek (TOS). There are telepathy, super-human abilities, a cast which includes many interesting aliens, a mysterious source of “nuclear vortices,” a Dudley-DoRight type main character and a romantic sub-plot. Dr. Neal Cloud starts out more like the Lone Ranger (with Joan as Tonto), but ends up with a band of aliens (largely female) who refuse to leave his side. I loved the cat-woman, Vesta, and her unabashedly sensual ways! Also loved the cigar-smoking female engineer (I pictured her as rather reptilian).

 

Of course, Neal and Joan end up being strongly attracted to one another. I do love Smith’s insistence on providing intelligent female companions for his heroes. Mind you, when Cloud manages to become a telepath, he rates 6 on a scale of 5 and is acknowledged by all for his superiority! (Poor old Joan is only rated a 3). No ordinary heroes with average abilities for Doc Smith. He manages to convey a lot of romantic atmosphere with very little description, no doubt necessary for the morays of the time (published in 1960).

 

This is book number 154 of my science fiction and fantasy reading project.

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