Archive for J.R.R. Tolkien

Here’s a Book for Me

Posted in New release, Non Fiction, Recommendations with tags , , , , , , on January 27, 2010 by jaclemens

The pseudo-spinning dial on the cover of Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son by Michael Chabon is exceptionally fitting.* Choose a subheading along the lines of Experience or Sincerity as a starting point and allow Chabon to elaborate in his distinctive elaborate prose! Even for Chabon enthusiasts such as myself not every essay is required reading, and one certainly need not read them in the order presented.  There is something here for every reader, man or woman, novice or expert.

I skipped ahead when I read Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands (see review posted on 8/15/08), and I wish I had given the dial a spin with this book. Consider it an amateur error! “A father is a man who fails every day,” Chabon asserts in the lead off essay “The Losers’ Club.” A reasonable premise, if not an encouraging one. I listened to Bruce Springsteen’s greatest hits as I read the first few sections, and the repeated messages of failure and nostalgia had a synergistic downer effect. I knew precisely from whence Chabon came, yet the book was not lighting me up intellectually the way Maps and Legends had.

I was well into the fourth section before I encountered an essay which shook my intellectual moorings. Reading “The Ghost of Irene Adler” on the train I almost exclaimed aloud! Chabon’s depiction of Alexis from Texas is tantalizing and his enumeration of the ways “the Woman” gets on a best friend’s nerves is spot on: “and worst of all, most egregious of all, you cannot believe the way she talks to him. No, worst of all: You can’t believe that he puts up with it.” But what caused me to sit up and re-read the essay was his diagnosis: the death of a friendship over a woman can be attributed to a failure of imagination. In essence that is what a person admits when he says “I don’t know what he sees in her” or “I just don’t get why he’s with her,” but I had not considered it from that salient angle. And I have given it due consideration, particularly with regard to C.S. Lewis, his wife Joy Davidman, and his friendship with J.R.R. Tolkien. Just as Alexis from Texas presented Chabon with an interpretation of his story that had not occurred to him, he then presented me with a novel interpretation of an age-old dilemma. I had no idea that this topic would be addressed in the book, but this is the profound type of insight I expect from the sage Chabon!

I did not expect an essay about carrying a man purse (“I Feel Good About My Murse”), but then one should always leave luxuriant latitude for the unexpected when reading Michael Chabon! I won’t fault him for it, but I think I will stick with my “reading is sexy” canvas messenger bag. Nor do I see myself collecting cookbooks (“Art of Cake”) or throwing my support behind Jose Canseco (“On Canseco”), but I will not deny a man’s right to do so. Chabon is unstinting with his personal experiences, be it admitting his reformed habit of marijuana use to his kids (“D.A.R.E.”), losing his virginity (“Verging”), the dissolution of his first marriage (“The Hand On My Shoulder”), or the outré recommendation that resulted in his being set up with the woman who is his ideal complement, fellow author Ayelet Waldman (“Looking for Trouble”). His contemplation of his contemporary David Foster Wallace committing suicide (“Getting Out”) called to mind the U2 song “Stuck In A Moment You Can’t Get Out Of”, written about the suicide of INXS frontman Michael Hutchence.

There were a couple of essays that left me cold, a fair amount that sailed by with a comfortable recognition, and a precious few that had me grinning from ear-to-ear (“Surefire Lines” to name only one). There are some that I won’t be inclined to re-read, some that I have already re-read and shared with other like-minded individuals, and some that I will wait to revisit until I (and my children along with me) have aged a few more years. As a thirty-two year old husband, father of three, and aspiring author, this is exactly the type of book for which I have been searching. The insights of a forty-six year old husband, father of four, and accomplished author. It is material I can identify with, presented in inimitable style, by an author whom I admire and respect.

I’m not much of a pool player, but I would relish the opportunity to shoot pool with Chabon after one of his readings like Alexis from Texas. Better yet, to associate as parents of kids in the same social sphere. Would our shared “strangely possessive feelings about mythology” (“Sky and Telescope”) be a bond or a barrier? He would pity me “with the especial harsh pity of the geek” for not having an appreciation of Dr. Who (“An Amateur Family”), but considering my firstborn son gave me a t-shirt with the phrase “I’ve got MAD Bat’leth Skills” on it for Christmas I’d say I’m doing my part to raise the next generation of geeks (or amateurs, as Chabon prefers)! I gave myself Manhood for Amateurs for Christmas; is it manly to send yourself a thank you card?

*Cover design by Will Staehle

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The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún review

Posted in Fiction, New release, Poetry, Recommendations with tags , , on May 29, 2009 by jaclemens

Legend of Sigurd & GudrunThe Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún is an eminent addition to J.R.R. Tolkien’s preeminent body of work. Here we have two marvelous tales from Norse mythology, the Lay of the Völsungs and the Lay of Gudrún, retold by a renowned philologist. These are no mere translations; indeed translation is not possible when the extant sources are piecemeal variants and prose summaries. Tolkien painstakingly recreated these tremendous poems much like Regin reforged Gram, the sword Sigurd used to slay the dragon Fáfnir. Written in the old eight-line fornyrðislag stanza, these lays are illuminating. A hero who was more highly anticipated for his prowess in the after-life than in mortal life, Sigurd is thus descried by a sibyl:

“On his head shall be helm,

in his hand lightning,

afire his spirit,

in his face splendor.

The Serpent shall shiver

and Surt waver,

the Wolf be vanquished

and the world rescued.”

Reading Tolkien’s poetry is like reading him for the first time again. His son and faithful editor Christopher Tolkien once again provides foreword, midword, and afterword. Yet unlike the insightful commentary he provided for The Children of Húrin (see review posted 02/08), here his notes are overly thorough and clutter up the work. These may be the very challenges that his father overcame in writing the lays, but he performed that feat in order to spare others from the ordeal. The exhaustive notes point more to a need to add length to the book than they do to an understanding of the story being told. I read them all and gleaned some gold from the dross, but I wouldn’t do it again. I would gladly read the lays many times over and I’d be a better storyteller for it.

Review of Children of Hurin

Posted in Recommendations, reviews with tags on February 15, 2008 by jaclemens

Children of HurinWhile it is possible for an author’s unfinished works to be published posthumously, is it necessary? Even with an implicitly trusted editor, can the later works take their place alongside the former? These questions apply particularly to The Children of Húrin by J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by his son Christopher Tolkien and illustrated by Alan Lee (Houghton Mifflin, $26.00). With The Children of Húrin, Christopher Tolkien presents a stand-alone version of a story already reproduced in the previous posthumous publications Unfinished Tales and The Silmarillion. Is a third recounting actually necessary? In all of the languages of Middle-earth, the answer is yes.

Húrin and his wife Morwen have three children: Túrin, Urwen, and Nïenor. Urwen succumbs to a pestilence and dies in childhood; of the three children, she is the most fortunate. Because Húrin, a prisoner of war, resists the will of his captor Morgoth, his children are cursed and he is compelled to watch them suffer. Túrin is sent to live with the elves, but Morwen, who is with child, does not accompany him. Thus Túrin does not meet his sister Nïenor until later in life, under dubious circumstances. Túrin grows into a mighty hero, but he is ill-fated nonetheless and those around him, be they friend or foe, man or elf, male or female, suffer for it. Túrin fails by succeeding. He single-handedly slays the great dragon Glaurung, which has long plagued and pursued him, but his vengeance is merely a Cadmeian victory. When the dragon meets its demise, so does its horde of lies, and the terrible truth that remains destroys both Túrin and Nïenor. Húrin is released by Morgoth in time to find Morwen dying on the same spot.

The Children of Húrin is a great tree of a tale grown from the seed of the story of Kullervo found in The Kalevala, and nourished by the deep soil of Middle-earth. Along with The Tale of Beren and Lúthien and The Fall of Gondolin, it is one of the ‘Great Tales’ of the Elder Days, tales that are integral to the history of Middle-earth yet sufficiently self-contained to exist independently, as indicated in a letter the author wrote in 1951. Five-and-a-half decades later, Tolkien’s intent has been fulfilled.

Christopher Tolkien has proven himself a dedicated editor of his father’s writings as well as a faithful executor of his father’s wishes. The task of editing Tolkien’s compilations is complicated by the fact that he was his own greatest revisionist, setting aside incomplete manuscripts only to begin new versions years later. After careful consideration of multiple extant but undated versions of the story, Christopher Tolkien has produced this authoritative book, greatly enhanced by the lustrous, grand-yet-subtle illustrations of Alan Lee, which was always meant to stand on the shelf next to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

Top Ten Books

Posted in Top Ten with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 1, 2008 by jaclemens

There are many ways to slant a top ten list, but this is my straight up Top Ten Books list (arranged alphabetically by author):

1. Orlando Furioso by Ludovico Ariosto

2. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

3. The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell

4. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

5. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky

6. On Writing by Stephen King

7. The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

8. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

9. Mila 18 by Leon Uris

10. Trinity by Leon Uris

While no individual title by C.S. Lewis has cracked the list (I have yet to acquire Allegory of Love, so it may still happen), his collected works are certainly among my favorites.