Happy Birthday to J.R.R. Tolkien! The Professor was born on this day in 1892 in Orange Free State in what is now South Africa.
Thought I spent yet another holiday at home alone, it was a pretty okay evening. I made plokkfiskur again, watched The Fellowship of the Ring, and finished reading The Return of the King. I would have gone to bed a bit sooner than 1:00 A.M., but my neighborhood loves its fireworks, so they were going off until about 12:30. So I bid good riddance to 2020 and quietly welcomed in 2021. May it be better to us all than 2020 was.
Obligatory Mina Photo:
Mina has developed a strange obsession with making sure that the lower cabinet doors in the bathroom are open. She doesn’t want to get into the cabinets (which is where the recycling bags are), she just wants to open the doors. This involves pawing at the latches until they pop open, and then nudging the doors until they open to just the right angle. And then she leaves them alone.
Why? Why does my cat want me to whack my shins on the cabinet doors?
What I Finished Reading Last Week:
- Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings by Neil Price
- The Crystal Cave (The Merlin Trilogy #1) by Mary Stewart, audiobook narrated by Derek Perkins
- Winterlust: Finding Beauty in the Fiercest Season by Bernd Brunner
- The Lord of the Rings: A Reader’s Companion by Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull
- The Return of the King (The Lord of the Rings #3) by J.R.R. Tolkien
- To Be Taught, if Fortunate by Becky Chambers
- The Fourth Island by Sarah Tolmie
I’ve mentioned how much I’d been enjoying Children of Ash and Elm in earlier sum-ups, so I won’t go too far into it except to reiterate what an excellent pop history book this is. Price delves into the realities of what we know about the Vikings, detailing what we know and don’t know, in what ways they were similar to us and in what ways they are alien to us, what powered the society, just how much they spread across the world, and the evidence that shows the extent of their dealing with native North American cultures. If you’re a history fan– especially of that dealing with medieval Europe and/or the Vikings– this book is not to be missed.
The Crystal Cave is my favorite Arthurian book ever, and the audiobook narration by Derek Perkins is spot on. I love how beautiful Stewart’s prose is and how easily it flows from one time period to the next. And I love how this version of Merlin is a prodigy who seeks knowledge– and power– wherever he can find it, but his personal ambitions often make him blind to the plans and desires of the people around him. If you’re interested in modern King Arthur stories,Mary Stewart’s Merlin trilogy is an excellent place to start.
Winterlust is one of those short nonfiction books dealing with a topic I enjoy (winter!) that I checked out via the Hoopla app on a snowy day when work was quiet and we got to go home early anyway. I read it in one day, and it was fine. It’s a whirlwind tour of winter and how our perceptions of it have changed over the centuries. Once upon a time, winter was a dark and frightening season when sickness, hunger, and snow could kill without little warning. Nowadays, we enjoy the idea of winter and being able to go out, build a snowman (provided there’s snow) or go skiing or whatnot, then go back inside where it’s warm. It wasn’t particularly deep, but there were plenty of interesting facts about winter, snow, and other wintry things.
The Lord of the Rings: A Reader’s Companion was a helpful collection of annotations and notes about The Lord of the Rings that I read along with the books. There were so many bits of useful information that provided context about details that I’ve always seen, but never really thought about– like when Éowyn uses the familiar thee/thou pronouns when talking to Aragorn at Dunharrow. She’s trying to show him just how much she cares about him, but Aragorn is betrothed to another and so uses the formal you/your pronouns. But later on, when Éowyn has pledged herself to Faramir and is finally happy, Aragorn uses the familiar thee/thou when he says, “I have wished thee joy since first I saw thee”. Which is such a lovely little detail that I’d always seen, but never thought too much about. I love it when I can appreciate new little details like this in my favorite books.
And speaking of favorite books– I finished up the appendices at the end of The Return of the King on New Year’s Eve, and it brought back so many memories of sitting down with Appendix E and trying to figure out Tengwar (the Fëanorian Characters) when I was in high school. I mostly had it sorted for a while, but I haven’t used it for so long that I’ve forgotten what character goes with which sound. Makes me want to go back and learn it properly now that my handwriting is so much better. But anyway. The story. Do I need to go into it? Like how I tear up every time I read about Théoden leading the charge onto the Pelennor Fields? Or when Éowyn faces the Witch-king of Angmar? There aren’t many books that prompt me to tear up, even in sad scenes. There are basically none that make me tear up during battle scenes. Except, you know, The Return of the King. Because Tolkien is so great like that. Plus the little details I’m noticing now, thanks to the Reader’s Companion. And because I’m apparently stuck on Éowyn, I find it necessary, once again, to state that she does not “settle” for Faramir, and it’s not demeaning that she decided to become a healer (aka, a DOCTOR). Instead of spending the rest of her life pining after a man who doesn’t love her back, she falls in love with a man (Faramir) who loves her for who she is and who becomes the second most powerful man in Gondor. Her decision to become a healer is a mark in her favor, too, from an author who despised war and did not care for the warrior culture that praises warriors or soldiers above all because they go out and fight. Tolkien was a veteran of one of the most destructive battles of WWI. He understood that fighting was necessary, but did not praise or glamorize it. He would rather praise people who worked for peace and who worked to heal others. There’s an aphorism in Gondor about the true king being known by his ability to heal– ‘The hands of the king are the hands of a healer, thus shall the rightful king be known’. The people of Gondor will know their king has returned not because of a sword or battlefield glory, but because he is able to heal an illness that has baffled the healers of Minas Tirith. So Éowyn did not “settle”, and her decision to become a healer is praiseworthy, not a diminishment of her character or abilities.
The first book I read in 2021 was Becky Chambers’s novella, To Be Taught, if Fortunate, which is about four astronauts who are part of a program of space exploration. Thanks to the cryosleep that keeps their bodies preserved during the decades it takes for their ship to travel from one planet to the next. So while they age incredibly slowly while they’re in cryosleep, time marches on for the people of Earth. History is moving on and on and on, but not for the astronauts, who must decide if they want to listen to the reports from home or not. And if they listen to the news, how does this affect their own lives and their mission? This is a brief, beautiful story that asks all sorts of intelligent questions about our relationships with each other, with our planet, with the non-sentient creatures around us, and what the purpose of exploration is.
The Fourth Island is another novella. It is set in the windswept Aran Islands off the coast of Ireland. They’re bleak islands, but beautiful in their way, and populated by people who are insular and traditional, but work hard to take care of themselves and each other. There are three islands– Inis Mór, Inis Meáin, and Inis Oírr– but in Tolmie’s story, there is a fourth island: Inis Caillte, which is not on any map and cannot be found by anyone except by those who are utterly lost and near death. The Fourth Island is the story of people through time who end up on Inis Caillte, and how they come to be at peace with themselves in this strange place. It is beautifully written, and while it doesn’t have a traditional narrative structure, I definitely recommend it.
What I’m Currently Reading:
- Windwitch (Witchlands #2) by Susan Dennard, audiobook narrated by Cassandra Campbell (11%)
- Paradise Lost by John Milton (45/431)
Because in 2021, I want to try to finish up some of the series I’ve started (doesn’t everyone want to do that?), I decided to continue on with Susan Dennard’s Witchlands series, I found the first book interesting (and better than a lot of the YA I read in 2020), and the library had it available for immediate download. So I’m listening to it, and the story so far is mostly great– except for the mustachio-twirling villainess– but I’m not very far into it, so no real opinions so far.
I feel as though I am much farther into Paradise Lost than I actually am, just because the essay that precedes the poem was quite long on its own, but only gets Roman numerals and not actual pagination. That doesn’t start until you get to the poem itself. But I have a much better grounding in Milton’s life, his politics, his economic viewpoints, and how the Satan of the poem is distracted by the facades of this world and overlooks the reality of it all. Which reminded me of Rene Magritte’s painting, ‘The Treachery of Images’, which is a painting of a pipe and the words (in French) “ceci n’est pas une pipe”– “this is not a pipe”. It’s stating that the picture is not an actual pipe. It’s just a picture of a pipe. It is the sign or symbol of the thing, and not the thing itself. Which, it seems, is one of the themes Milton deals with in Paradise Lost. The essay also reminded me of The Silmarillion, where Morgoth’s rebellion and his evil deeds ultimately become written into the music that Iluvatar develops for his great creation. Basically, no matter how rebellious Morgoth thinks he is, his works will only lead to the greater glory of Iluvatar’s creation. In the same way, no matter how much Satan rebels, it’s only a grand part of God’s plan for the world. And that’s just what I picked up from the essay. I’m not that far into the poem itself. The rebel angels have only just fallen, and Satan is beginning to make plans. We’ll see where things go from here.
What I Plan to Start Reading This Week:
There is a whole list of novellas I’ve been wanting to read, and I haven’t gotten around to reading any of them. So this month, I’ll be reading a flock of them. I’ve already borrowed The Monster of Elendhaven via the Hoopla app, and I’ll have to buy The Worm and His Kings via the Nook app, since it is not available through my library. But given that the ebook is only a few dollars, I’m not bothered by it. Besides. I’ll be helping out a little-known author and the indie publisher that published her book.
What I’ve Been Watching:
The Queen’s Gambit
Created by Scott Frank, Allan Scott
Starring: Anya Taylor-Joy, Marielle Heller, Thomas Brodie-Sanger, Harry Melling, Moses Ingram, Bill Camp
Who would have thought that a mini-series about a chess player would be so compelling? But yes, this show is what prompted a sudden interest in the game of chess. Why? Because it is marvelous. It’s based on the novel of the same name, and follows the (fictional) life of Beth Harmon, an orphan girl who discovers the game of chess thanks to the janitor at the orphanage where she lives. She is a phenomenal player, and the show is about her rise to the highest level of the chess world in the 1960s and early 1970s. The fact that she is a woman in a man’s world is only one of the issues she has to deal with– and it’s not her biggest problem. Her biggest problem is that she has been addicted to tranquilizers since childhood, thanks to the orphanage’s attempts to keep the students quiet and biddable. Beth later develops problems with alcohol and pills, and has other psychological problems that prevent her from making deeper connections with people who genuinely want to help her.
There are so, so many things to like about this show. I’ll list them here:
– the acting
– the sets and costumes
– the script
– the production value
– that the writers assume that the audience is smart enough to keep up with all the talk about chess and doesn’t waste time explaining everything.
– that the characters’ motives are all complex and sometimes contradictory
– that the male chess players that Beth defeats aren’t resentful at being beaten by a woman. In fact, it helps bring them together
– that the Russian chess players aren’t treated like an enemy Beth has to overcome because it’s her duty as an American. Or something. The Russian players are treated like other chess players who just happen to be from the USSR.
And the big thing…. Scott Frank did not use sexual assault as a plot device to give Beth something to overcome. There are moments where it seems as though the story might head down that path, but it never does, and it’s remarkable for that. So many TV and film writers have used sexual assault of female characters as plot points that it’s notable when it doesn’t happen to a female character. Which is sad. It’s often a sign lazy writing and– in so many instances of it– it’s unnecessary. There are plenty of problems people can have and overcome for the sake of a plot that don’t involve sexual assault. So kudos to Frank for not taking the lazy route. Beth’s character had enough problems– and many of them self-inflicted– without having to inflict a sexual assault on her.
So anyway. The Queen’s Gambit is a fantastic, beautifully-produced, and perfectly acted, and if you haven’t already watched it, do yourself a favor and check it out.