Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Hobbit (Top 100 #42)

By J.R.R. Tolkien

Four Things I Liked About The Hobbit:
1. The storytelling.
2. Bilbo*
3. Gandalf
4. Middle-Earth's vividness.

I should probably try to stop being surprised each time I end up liking something Lord of the Rings related. It first happened when my dad forced me to watch the trilogy before our trip to New Zealand**, and in spite of my petulant pre-teen reluctance, I enjoyed them enough to later embark on a Lord of the Rings marathon with my friends (we made it through the first two before our eyes glazed over from prolonged screen exposure). I likewise resisted reading The Hobbit, though my uncle gave me a lovely copy several years ago, and with the same result: I liked it, in spite of myself. The only reason I didn't give it 5 stars is because though it was enjoyable, it wasn't quite a compulsive, withdrawal inducing read, nor did I put it down and think, "WOW," which are my two main criteria for 5-star ratings. It's a precise science, I know.

Bilbo Baggins is a content hobbit. He has a snug little hobbit-hole home, several square meals a day - whenever the urge strikes - and the closest he's gotten to an adventure is listening to old tales. Until Gandalf shows up for tea with a gang of 13 unruly dwarves, a fantastic*** proposition, and high expectations for poor Bilbo, whom he intends to extract from the quiet hobbit life and recruit as the dwarves' hired burglar. The quest is to recover the dwarf king's stolen gold from the dragon Smaug, who hoards it in a mountain fortress months' travel and innumerable dangers away from Bilbo's cozy Shire. Bilbo, who has hardly set foot outside the Shire, encounters trolls, goblins, elves, a shape-shifting bear, giant spiders (think Acromantula, -shudders-) the infamous cave-dwelling creature Gollum, and a magical ring of invisibility in his trek through the forbidding wildernesses of Middle-Earth, each terrain riddled with its own particular dangers. Gandalf has placed a great responsibility on Bilbo's shoulders, and though Bilbo frets and fears and even faints, he rises admirably to the occasion, and goes home a hobbit hero (I'm not spoiling anything for you here, it's pretty clear from the get-go that our little hero comes out on top).

Bilbo is so endearing. I know he's like a 50-year-old, chubby fantasy creature who battles trolls and goblins and giant spiders and can totally take care of himself, but I thought of him kind of like a child the whole time. I think part of it was a) his perpetual complaints about inconstant food-supply, and b) his perpetual longing to be back home in his hobbit-hole. It just made him seem so cuddly and vulnerable; I wanted to give him a hug, a mug of hot tea, and a warm cookie to make it all better. And yet he is every bit the hero, saving his friends time and time again with a little ingenuity, a lot of luck, and, of course, his trusty invisible ring.

The Hobbit is a classic fantasy adventure story (go figure, Tolkien probably invented this genre), but with a level of almost unparalleled detail and creativity in the composition of the world. I was seamlessly absorbed into both the story and Middle-Earth by Tolkien's modest and subtle, yet vivid descriptions. Which is saying a lot, considering how prejudiced I was going in.

Surprises: How considerably lighter a tale it is than the Lord of the Rings trilogy; how little foreshadowing there was for the trilogy; how little time was spent dwelling on Gollum (he's never mentioned again after the initial encounter); and how readable it was (I don't know why I expected it to be a slow read, other than that I expected not to like it, which is the biggest speed impediment there is).

No more will I wrinkle my nose (mentally) when people tell me their favorite book is by Tolkien. It's not my favorite book, but I definitely know where they're coming from, and I'm actually looking forward to reading the Lord of the Rings trilogy, which is also on the Top 100 list. I'd recommend The Hobbit to people who were childhood fans of Tamora Pierce, Harry Potter, Dianna Wynne Jones, Ella Enchanted, or The Enchanted Forest Chronicles.

* Incidentally, in the forthcoming film adaptation, Bilbo is going to be played by Watson, from the ubiquitous (on this blog, anyway) Sherlock. Also, it goes to show how influential (and dare I say, ubiquitous?) Tolkien's work is that there's no squiggly line under the name 'Bilbo.' Testing... how about 'Voldemort'? Shucks. There goes the squiggly line (though you can't see it). Well, it's just a matter of time.
** Blogger also refutes 'Zealand' with its squiggly red line of ignorance, so it's obviously no kind of authority on what words should be recognized as real and not. Why Bilbo (endearing as he is) makes that list over a country, I do not know.
*** As in, "conceived or appearing as if conceived by an unrestrained imagination; odd and remarkable; bizarre," or "highly unrealistic or impractical," or "incredibly great or extreme," or all of the above.

Books Read This Year: 27
Top 100 Progress: 42/100

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Persuasion (Top 100 #41)

By Jane Austen

Four Things I Like About Persuasion:
1. Bath
2. Captain Wentworth
3. Anne's family members (for comic relief)
4. Secret letters

I'm just plugging away at the Top 100 list lately, aren't I? And I'm currently reading #42 (The Hobbit)!

I was tempted to give Persuasion only three stars, until I realized that the low rating would have been for fault of mine, not Miss Austen's. To be honest, I didn't give Persuasion the attention an Austen novel deserves. I was reading it in full distraction mode, in small blips of time on the go while in transit during my spring break - riding the D.C. metro, flying from D.C. to Indy, in the car between errands - rather than my preferred 30+ minute-long sittings. Which is all well and good to realize, but still left me in an ambiguous situation, rating-wise. Should I rate up, assuming it was better than my spotty reading was able to appreciate? Or do I rate down, on the basis of actual enjoyment, permitting that perhaps Persuasion just isn't my favorite Austen novel? I thought it over and settled on the former, deciding that I did in fact enjoy the consituent parts of the novel, even if I didn't read it closely enough to satisfactorily stich them all together.

Our heroine, Anne Elliott, and a Mr. Frederick Wentworth fell in love when she was 19, but parted ways when Anne was persuaded to break off their engagement on the grounds that he had little to offer in the way of social standing or support, and Frederick - a sailor - set off to make his fortune at sea. Seven years later, the novel opens with the Elliott family finding it necessary to relocate, Mr. Elliott having frivolously squandered the nest-egg Mrs. Elliott left behind when she died. Unable to afford the upkeep of their estate, Kellynch Hallf, they decide to rent it out to Admiral Croft, a respectable retired naval officer, and his wife. While Anne's father and her sister Elizabeth go ahead to their new lodgings in Bath, Anne first spends a month staying with her sister Mary, just three miles from Kellynch Hall. The proximity requires that Mary's family, the Musgroves, receive Mrs. Croft's brother, newly ashore from the navy - none other than Anne's former fiance, now Captain Wentworth, who has made a name and fortune for himself. The reunion proves at first almost unbearably awkward for Anne, perceiving that Captain Wentworth has not forgiven her for her rejection. But when the families move on to Bath and Anne is pursued by a new and engaging suitor, it appears that all hope may not be lost after all (much to our surprise).

Phew. I did not expect that summary to take so long. I guess Austen is more complicated than you might think, which really shouldn't surprise me considering the complexity of the social graces back then, her primary subject matter. My apologies if I've over-complicated it; I'm a bit tired, and writing this straight into the post rather than typing it out in Word, because my computer decided that spring break would be a good time to have a harddrive breakdown. Hrmph.

Persuasion has all the requisite wit, perceptiveness of social and emotional subtleties, and diverse and realistically quirky cast of characters one expects of Jane Austen, with just enough of the differences that keep her novels distinct and interesting. For one, Persuasion is the shortest Austen novel I've read, capping at just under 250 pages. For another, this is not a novel of first impressions (see: Pride and Prejudice), but second chances. Rather than detailing the many uncertainties, missteps, and excitements of falling in love, Perusasion navigates the grey area of repairing burned bridges and breathing new life into flames thought to be extinguished.

My only major qualm with Persuasion is the suddenness of the conversion from Anne and Wentworth awkwardly orbiting one another to sharing flushed, meaningful glances that ignite the short fuse from 'I'm still interested' to 'I must confess my never-forgotten love for you immediately!' I felt there could have been more time spent developing the middleground. I mean, they hardly even talked! What was supposed to have altered the balance of the status quo? Perhaps this qualm is again more a fault of my own poor reading rather than a flaw of Austen's writing, and if so, please do contest me and let me know. I've also been informed that Austen was writing Persuasion whilst ill (it was her last finished novel), so perhaps she hastened through the final stages of courtship so as to finish before a death that felt to be drawing near, I do not know. In any case, if you've read and enjoyed other Austen novels, I guarantee you will feel the same about Persuasion

Books Read This Year: 26
Top 100 Progress: 41/100

Monday, March 21, 2011


By John Green

Four Things I Like About Zombicorns:
1. John Green*
2. Mia’s dog having an existential crisis
3. Chicago/The Bean
4. Using a library as a hideout from zombie ambush

Zombicorns is not just another clever story penned (or rather, typed) by young adult author/rock-star John Green. It’s not just a zombie apocalypse novella. It is not even just a zombie apocalypse novel written by a rock-star.

It’s a profound statement about corn**. And souls. And what makes humans human. And whether that makes us better than other living things. And what, ultimately, we live for. Pretty heavy stuff for any novella, much less one with a zombie unicorn on the cover, if you ask me.

Also, despite appearances, it’s not at all about unicorns (see disclaimer beneath title). Sorry if that revelation just dealt you a heavy blow of disappointment. You’ll get over it. I promise. Just read the real story.

Mia is one of the last of her kind – that is, our kind: humans. She has cloistered herself in a Chicago cellar, eating Spam, drinking expensive wine by the bottle, and writing her memoirs about the aftermath of the sudden outbreak of D131Y – a virus spread through corn that Z’s up (aka zombifies) all who ingest it – while she debates whether continued survival is really worth the effort, or whether she should just give up and commit Zuicide. The only living, loving soul left to her in the world is her dog, Mr. President. You know, the one who suffers an existential crisis. Which was probably just Mia projecting, but I prefer to pretend it was all Mr. President. (Incidentally, I can’t blame her for the wine. I’d probably be in the cups, too, if I survived the zombie apocalypse only to have to ‘complete’ my Z’d up family so they wouldn’t force-feed me zombie corn.)

Only John Green can make a zombie apocalypse novella a profound statement of any kind.

Exhibit A: “I came to the conclusion a while ago that there is nothing romantic or supernatural about loving someone: Love is the privilege of being responsible for another.”

Exhibit B: “Being a person, I had come to realize, is a communal activity. Dogs know how to be dogs. But people do not know how to be people unless and until they learn from other people. Which got me to wondering whether it’s possible to learn how to be a person in a world where all the people are dead.”

And these are just examples short enough to include. There were several other marvelous multi-paragraph examples of John’s evidently innate ability to profoundify anything.

Also, only John Green could make me ever want to read a zombie apocalypse novella. And like it.

That being said, it’s not perfect. But it’s not supposed to be. He wrote it for fun, he didn’t ruthlessly edit the way you do before Official Publication, and he’s disseminating it for free on the Internet purely for the enjoyment of his fans. Which I think is pretty dang cool, so I am more than happy to overlook a few typos and inconsistencies and tangents here and there.

If the idea of a novella about corn and zombies intrigues you, you can watch John read the first chapter here.

You can download your very own personal copy of Zombicorns here.

* If you know anything about John Green, you know this counts as a thing to like about something he’s written. His name on the cover of a book is like a big official seal that says “This Book Is Guaranteed To Be Both Entertaining and Intelligent,” only better, because you can trust John Green’s name more than you can trust the kind of seals they slap on to try to sell more copies of subpar bestsellers.
** You know, like how it keeps cropping up in the most unlikely of places. Sugar, fuel, plastic…

Books Read This Year: 24
Top 100 Progress: 40/100

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (Top 100 #40)

By Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Four Things I Liked About Adventures:
1. Sherlock’s disguises.
2. His contemplative violin playing.
3. “This is a three pipe problem, and I ask you not to speak to me for fifty minutes.”* 
4. Catching many of the allusions to the original Sherlock in Sherlock and the recent Robert Downey Jr. remake.

This is Sherlock Holmes like I expected him to be: Sassy, quirky, quick-witted, insensitive, infuriatingly secretive about his thought process, and more concerned with the thrill of the case than the fate of his clients. I accidentally skipped a book in the overall series (The Sign of Four, one of the four novels), but there was clearly a lot of growth in Doyle’s storytelling and character development, and it made the stories that much more enjoyable. If A Study in Scarlet was Sherlock in conception, then The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is Sherlock fully realized, in all his snarky, brilliant glory.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is a book of short stories, each detailing a single case, as told by Sherlock’s partner in (solving) crime, Dr. Watson**. The installments of the complete Sherlock Holmes series can all be read independently and still make sense, but they also build on one another, with a couple plot threads stretching across several books (and becoming more plentiful as the series go on, I gather) and occasional references to previous cases. While all the stories in Adventures are witty and entertaining, I did, of course, have a few favorites: The Red-Headed League (I covet the hair of gingers, ❤ Weasley family), The Man With the Twisted Lip (an intrigue of identity and disappearing acts), and The Adventure of the Copper Beeches (Bertha Mason isn’t the only woman in the attic***).

The more Sherlock Holmes I read, the more I want to read, because they start off good and get progressively even better. I’ve now decided to read the entire series, and I’m crossing my fingers that my friend gets the complete set for her birthday this week so I can steal borrow them when we get back to campus. 

To conclude with a non sequitur: was anyone else aware that Dr. House is supposed to be a re-imagining of Sherlock Holmes? My first thought when I was told was, “Ah… That makes perfect sense.”

* Side note: In the ingeniously adapted BBC series Sherlock (which I mentioned in my post on A Study In Scarlet, and have since finished, and ohmygosh-why-are-there-no-new-episodes-until-next-winter-the-cliffhanger-is-killing-me), Sherlock says instead, “This is a three patch problem,” and shows Watson his arm with three nicotine patches on it. Très clever, non? But that’s Sherlock.
** Another clever adaption by Sherlock (because I’m sure you’re as excited by these as I am) is playing off the form of the stories by having Watson publish a blog about Sherlock’s exploits.
*** Jane Eyre, anyone? Hoping to make a trek to a Landmark theatre here in DC on Tuesday, to see it before I head back to the Midwest, where it doesn’t come out for another week.

Books Read This Year: 23
Top 100 Progress: 40/100

Howards End

By E.M. Forster

Three Things I Liked About Howards End:
1. England! (It never fails to excite me.)
2. The dialogue.
3. The imagery, especially music.

It's been too long. My apologies. School infringes on my reading/reviewing time. I don't approve. Happily, I'm on spring break now, so my reading rate will be amped up for the next week (yessss!).

Three days ago I spent about eight hours tucked into a corner of the library, the light of my laptop burning into my eyes as I furiously typed out a dissatisfying 5-page paper on this book. Consequently, whenever I think about it now I feel like I’m pressing my nose into the crease of the spine and trying to read. My brain goes a bit numb, so forgive me if this entry is on the short side.

Howards End is a story of two families, and the house that entwines them. The Schlegels: Margret, the eldest, a mix of pragmatism and idealism; Helen, the younger sister, passionate and full of ideals; and Tibby, the ascetic younger brother, who perceives life through self-constructed bars of knowledge and Oxford. The Wilcoxes: Ruth, the matron whose spirit is the life-force of both Howards End and Howards End; Henry, the patriarch, a stoic businessman who fails to appreciate his wife’s passion for a house; and their sons, Paul and Charles, the former sent off to Nigeria to further imperialist ventures, the latter a carbon copy of his father. The families meet on holiday in Germany, and their acquaintance is renewed when the Wilcoxes move into a flat across the street from the Schlegels’ London residence, Wickham Place. The passionate and cultured Schlegel sisters spin through the ordered lives of the Wilcoxes and through their carefully preserved status quo into upheaval.

Howards End reminds me of Jane Austen, as far as the English setting and the focus on interpersonal relationships. It has a wider scope, though, addressing not only personal relationships, but also class conflicts, imperialism, the stretching of societal gender roles, and the chafing of the industrializing modern society against the quaint pastoral lifestyle of old England.

Howards End isn’t quite a page-turner (hence only three stars; I just struggle giving anything top marks if it's not both readable AND well-written), but it’s an enjoyable read, and Forster’s dialogue is so convincing and his descriptions so poetic that one can’t help but admire them. My paper required that I watch the movie adaption as well as read the book (in order to compare and contrast them), and having done so, I really recommend them as a package deal. The movie isn’t a replacement for the book (I would never advocate so), but it’s a lovely companion, not to mention a wonderful movie in its own right, with beautiful set design, a fitting soundtrack, and outstanding acting performances*.

* Hey, Emma Thompson didn’t win her Oscar for nothing.

Books Read This Year: 21
Top 100 Progress: 39/40

Sunday, March 6, 2011

A Study In Scarlet

By Arthur Conan Doyle

Three Things I Like About A Study in Scarlet:
1. Non sequiturs that emerge from Sherlock's internal logic.
2. Sherlock's manic approach to sleuthing.
3. Use of Mormon Salt Lake City as a setting for intrigue.

A couple weeks ago I came across a recommendation for a new BBC drama called Sherlock – a modern adaption of Sherlock Holmes. The series (thus far) consists of 3 90-minute episodes, based on Doyle’s novellas and short stories. I downloaded the first episode, “A Study in Pink,” based on A Study in Scarlet, and loved it.* Being a stickler about reading books before watching their movies and never having read ay Sherlock Holmes before, I decided to spend some time with the genuine article before watching the next two episodes.

A Study in Scarlet is the first Sherlock Holmes story. It begins with the first meeting of Dr. Watson and Sherlock. Dr. Watson is fresh from Afghanistan, having retired from service following an injury and subsequent illness, and is looking for a flat mate. Within 24 hours he and Sherlock have moved into 221 Baker Street and Dr. Watson is embroiled in Sherlock’s latest case – a man found murdered with the ambiguous word “Rache” written on the wall in blood, though the body has suffered no wounds. The mystery spans from the streets of London all the way to the wilderness of the American West, as the backstory unfolds in the fledgling Mormon city of Salt Lake City, Utah.

Like I said, I’ve never had any experience with Sherlock Holmes before. This was a good introduction – being that it is the introduction – but I’ve heard that Doyle’s later stories are much better, and I do have to agree that this one had its flaws. Sherlock didn't say "elementary" even once! And the backstory to the murder is excessive and takes up almost half the novel. I cut Doyle plenty of slack, though, because this was his very first novel and he wrote it in 3 weeks. Plus, how can you really criticize the work of someone who created one of the most iconic characters of all time?**

I enjoyed this novel particularly in juxtaposition with the first episode of Sherlock, which played off A Study in Scarlet without exactly replicating it. I won’t go into details for fear of spoiling either the book or the show, but the general introductory framework of A Study in Scarlet remains intact in the episode, as does the presence of the word “Rache” and the means of murder, though the actual circumstances and motives vary vastly. So if you have the time and interest, I definitely recommend reading A Study in Scarlet (it won’t even take you long, as it’s hardly 100 pages) and then watching Sherlock. I daresay you won’t be disappointed.

I’ll be reading more Sherlock Holmes soon, partly because I’m getting a kick out of him right now, and partly because The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes will be #40 on my BBC Top 100 list. Woot!

* Seriously, it’s awesome. Sherlock is played to perfection, and the modern setting is used surprisingly effectively. It kicks the recent Robert Downey Jr./Jude Law version’s butt. And there’s three times more of it! What are you still doing here?
** Random thought, but I wonder if people will be making television adaptions of Harry Potter in like 100 years. That is, if anyone still watches TV anymore.

Books Read This Year: 20
Top 100 Progress: 39/40